The Prawn Cocktail Years
by Simon Hopkinson, Lindsey Bareham
Publisher: Michael Joseph, Penguin Books, Country: UK
ISBN: 9780718149802, Edition: second, Year: 2006
Link to publisher’s page or site
This review is the personal opinion of the reviewer.

Overview

If you’re old enough to know that a Prawn Cocktail is not some new alcoholic beverage, then perhaps you also remember a time when the Prawn Cocktail was an exotic dish, and dining in a restaurant was a rare and exciting experience. What Simon Hopkinson and Lindsey Bareham set out to do in this book is rehabilitate some of those once novel, subsequently much abused, and now almost forgotten dishes which were the mainstay of restaurant menus in the 1960s and 1970s.

The recipes here are a reminder that good food results from cooking with care and attention rather than just following the latest fashion.

Review

Simon Hopkinson has spent most of his life cooking, learning his craft during the Prawn Cocktail years, opening his own restaurant when he was only 21 and eventually and finally working as head chef at Sir Terence Conran’s Bibendum in London. Since 1995 he has devoted his time to cooking and writing.

Lindsey Barham writes recipes for British newspapers and magazines and has published several cookery books in her own rite including A Celebration of Soup and Just One Pot.

At the outset it should be said that this is a very English book. Many readers will be unfamiliar with the restaurants and restaurateurs celebrated here and some of the dishes such as Steak Garni, Potted Shrimps and Toad in the Hole may not conjure up any memories of days gone by, pleasant or otherwise. Nonetheless, all the recipes here are a reminder and a celebration of a time before food was arranged on the plate in towers, when ‘foam’ somehow related to soap, and ’soil’ was found only in the garden; a time before jus and coulis; a time even before ground black pepper was de rigueur. There was a time when both the professional chef and the home cook were not faced with a plethora of different and exotic ingredients, when cooking with wine and garlic was considered a novelty and when cooks and eaters were not on an endless quest for the next new fashion. Chefs and cooks had to do more with less.

The recipes here are grouped into chapters roughly chronologically starting with ‘The Fifties Hotel Dining Room’ and ‘The Gentleman’s Club’ and then working through ‘The Continental Restaurant’, ‘Expresso Bongo’, ‘The Sixties Bistro’, ‘The Trat-era’ and ‘Chez Gourmet’. With the exception of some quintessentially British dishes like Pork Pie and Spotted Dick the recipes cover a wide range of classic favourites such as Beef Goulash, Coq au Vin, Seafood Pancakes, Pears in Red Wine and Beef Wellington. Anyone who was cooking during the 1960s and 1970s will have many of these recipes in books by Constance Spry, Marguerite Patten, Margaret Fulton and the like. Rather than just rehashing old fashioned ideas, Hopkinson and Bareham update and in some cases redefine these dishes that ‘were once exciting but have been slung out like old lovers, while we carelessly flirt with the flavour of the month’. Spaghetti Bolognaise (English spelling) for example comes with a gentle reminder that the sauce is not ‘a boil-up’ but ‘a ragù, cooked very,very slowly and thoughtfully seasoned’ which ’should cling to the strands of pasta rather than be slopped on top like a cow pat’. Likewise ‘chopped aubergine, pepper, courgette, tomato, onion and garlic chucked together in an inferior olive oil, do not constitute a good Ratatouille’ and moussaka ‘doesn’t have to ooze oil … or be tasteless’. All the recipes come with an implicit reminder that a swag of fancy ingredients is no substitute for good technique, that there is no substitute for cooking with care and attention. Simon Hopkinson is an advocate of good ingredients handled properly and simple recipes which are satisfying to prepare and result in dishes which are satisfying to consume.

The text offers an entertaining potted history of dining out in England – more particularly London. Along the way there is also much of general interest including recipes and techniques for making timeless classics such as consommé, meat glaze, mayonnaise, celeriac remoulade, garlic bread and even how to prepare fresh foie gras.

Simon Hopkinson has a gentle sense of humour and writes clearly and concisely. He is precise without being pedantic and opinionated without being pretentious. The recipes are easy to read, well set out and easy to prepare, with one or two exceptions like the Tournados Rossini which requires you to start three days in advance so that you can produce your own meat glaze and deal with the aforementioned foie gras. A handful of those included here also appear in his earlier publication Roast Chicken and Other Stories [reviewed here]. In keeping with the theme, there is a somewhat old fashioned feel to the look and layout of this book but thankfully the photographs make the food appear much more interesting and appetising than it did in the books of the era.

Obviously, this book has significant appeal for anyone nostalgic for a time when garlic bread, French onion soup and profiteroles with chocolate sauce were the height of sophistication, before they were available ready prepared or as packet mixes and had lost any sense of being in any way special or delicious. For a younger readership, this book carries the message that good food is often much more than just the sum of its parts. Nothing could be simpler than the Prawn Cocktail – fresh, tasty prawns sitting on top of a little pile of shredded lettuce and dressed with a spicy mayonnaise flavoured and coloured a delicate pink with Heinz tomato ketchup and a few shakes of Tabasco but the art of making it something delicious lies in common sense and good taste. This is not a book which will appeal to everyone but the recipes are too good to dismiss it as an anachronism. If your culinary journey began in the 50s or 60s or 70s and you ever sit down to dinner with your children and start the conversation with ‘When I was your age…’ then you could do a lot worse than buy this book for them.

This is an original review for The Gastronomer’s Bookshelf.
Main rating: 4. Recommended – good
Visual appeal: Attractive
Suitability as a gift: If the person is really interested
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