What, no aspic? A Guide to Eating Retro Food in Manchester

Kate is on holiday this week so it falls to me to write up a Food Guide and as someone who has a terrible palate and very little knowledge of food outside of pickled eggs and Fray Bentos, I thought I’d choose something I know at least a little about - 'retro' food.

By Ben Brown | 3 July 2018

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It started off as a Guide to 70’s food but during that time I was only a glint in the milkman’s eye so I thought I’d make too many mistakes and end up with a gang of keyboard warriors doing my head in and complaining when all this is really is a bit of fun.

I know many of you will probably go on about how most of these dishes are available at home for a fraction of the cost, or that you can go to your poor mum’s house and she’ll cook a better one for you, well if that’s your attitude then why are you even reading this?

I wanted to look at how many of the city’s restaurants and bars are taking food from the 50’s through to the 80’s and not just re-inventing it but injecting these well-known dishes with flair and high quality ingredients. They’re definitely making a bit of a comeback and you shouldn’t shrug them off when looking at a menu. Let’s go then…


Party Food

Going to a wedding or a christening as a kid and I would always find the same old shit – vol au vents, Party Rings and those open finger sandwiches with a bit of Billy Bear ham slapped on. To be fair to our parents though, there was quite a lot of decent food knocking about, and first up has to be the legendary Quiche Lorraine which burst onto the scene in the mid-to-late 70’s and revolutionised many a household’s eating experience.

Obviously hailing from France, the quiche had been knocking about in some form for hundreds of years, but it wasn’t until someone added bacon and cheddar cheese in the 70’s that we started taking notice. If you’re looking for one of the city’s best, head to Bisous Bisous on Deansgate who freshly bake a few variations for lunch every day. I tucked into a fantastic smoked salmon one last week that prompted a tiny quiche revival in my personal life.

Another classic, especially amongst the picnic crowd is the humble Scotch Egg. There’s a lot of speculation as to where it originated, with Fortnum & Mason trying to take the credit, as well as (obviously) the Scottish – but regardless, it wasn’t until the advent of the modern supermarket where we started taking notice of this classic.

Notoriously tricky to make, as soon as industrial food processing came into force Scotch Eggs could be found in every garage forecourt throughout the country. Well, ignore these hard-boiled cardboard-esque concoctions and head for a proper one at the Bay Horse Tavern in the NQ, a perfectly soft-boiled egg with a gooey, runny yolk, slightly spicy sausage meat and a perfectly crisp crumb. Lovely stuff.

A supermarket favourite, and another European classic is pate. Whether it’s from France, Belgium or even German, potted meats and terrines were all the rage in the 60’s and 70’s and a very economical way to re-package often undesirable offal cuts which had gone out of fashion since the end of rationing.

Everyone has tucked into a bit of pate at some point or another, and there are countless places in which to try some very impressive cocktails of meat, fruit and jelly. My favourite would be at Hawksmoor however, who’s knowledge and prowess with meat is often unparalleled in the city and continues with their fantastic Potted Beef & Bacon which comes with a side of Yorkies in which to smear it on.

Although it’s not technically a ‘party’ food, I was struggling to find a place to put Jacket Potatoes so they’re going here. Screw it. A favourite amongst school children, dinner ladies and Brian Harvey, the Jacket Potato has been around since Sir Walter Raleigh tried to get into Lizzie’s knickers in the 15th Century but it wasn’t until some bright spark decided to add coleslaw, tuna, cheese, beans or all of the above to it that it became a highly sought after lunchtime treat.

Another bright spark, Jonathan Green, the Head Chef at Albatross & Arnold has managed to re-invent the humble jacket with his brilliant Cauliflower Jacket Potato which comes stuffed with a cauliflower custard and topped with a cauliflower crumb, silverskin onions and a gherkin gel. A fantastic, quality twist on a retro classic that impressed even the MasterChef lot on telly a while back.

Finally, if I’m to believe my 1970’s based movies, no party would be complete without a Fondue, the Swiss national dish in the 30’s that became massive in the UK and the US throughout the 60’s and 70’s. It’s very easy to understand how it became so popular, it’s basically a chafing dish full of melted cheese (typically mixed with wine or sometimes beer) which you proceed to dip whatever you want into it – be it bread, ham, fingers, fruit and even more chunks of cheese.

It’s amazing. Somewhere in the city that has pretty much cornered the Fondue market is Bock Biere on Tib Street who have such a range of different options that you might end up dipping pizza in gravy all night long. For the best retro experience, go for their Classic Cheese Fondue, a cocktail of 4 cheeses, Belgian beer and crème fraiche which comes with a side of focaccia, crunchy veg and potato rosti’s for dipping.


Proper Tea

I always have an enduring memory of not wanting to eat something my mum cooked one time, not only because it looked horrible but because it tasted vile. As a 9-year-old I clearly had no concept of cuisine, and as I cried because my dad wouldn’t let me have a Choc Ice until I ate more, I must have severely pissed my mum off who probably thought she was being exotic by serving up Beef Bourguigon to a child.

A French stew of beef, red wine and various veggies, it probably became so popular in the households of the UK due to the fact that it utilised often cheap cuts of beef that were readily available from the supermarket or butchers. No so much these days though. As the more economical cuts have gone out of favour, the braising steak is often replaced by cuts fit for an emperor, often, in my humble opinion, to the detriment of the dish.

To me you’ve got to stick with your guns and use proper braising steak, which provides a fantastically rich injection of flavour and has the perfect balance between meat and fat that ensures not only the meat is tender, but the gravy is too. I’d therefore recommend the Classic Braised Beef Bourguignon at Brasserie Abode, which is not only hearty and delicious, it’s also truly a classic and will take you right back to your childhood.

Another Janine Brown classic was ‘Tater Ash – a tea I particularly looked forward to due to the fact that it gave me an excuse to eat half a jar of pickled beetroot and turn my wee purple. Gaining popularity after the Second World War, the humble hash was the perfect dish for when meat was a bit scarce – adding potato and vegetables to the cuts of meat made it go much further – perfect for Monday nights with Sunday Lunch leftovers.

A very popular variation on the Tater Hash is the Corned Beef Hash which is much more American and usually eaten for breakfast. If this is what you’re looking for then I suggest you head on over to Albert Square Chop House who have a fantastic one that comes served alongside bacon, sautéed potatoes and a poached egg plonked on top. Alternatively, the ever-creative Adam Reid at The French has updated the classic ‘tater hash with a contemporary twist, serving it up with some delicately meaty beef tartare, diced veg and a mushroom catsup sauce.

I could probably go on forever with this article, and I might even do a Part 2 the next time Kate goes on holiday so I’ll finish up with every dad’s favourite Wednesday night meal – gammon, egg and chips.

I’ve never really understood why Gammon became so popular in the 80’s and 90’s; it’s a slab of meat that explicitly requires a ‘wet’ addition to make it palatable – be it a ring of pineapple, a fried egg or just a huge cocktail of readily available condiments from your cupboard.

One place who have managed to bring gammon, well ham, back into the 21st century though are Bunny Jackson’s who serve up a brilliant Ham Hock, Egg and Chips sandwich which is just fantastic. It’s salty, crispy, eggy and tangy in all the right proportions and acts as the perfect foil to a hunk of gammon that you could bind a shoe in.

In addition to the gammon, Bunny Jackson’s also do a brilliant Spam based sandwich which always manages to put a smile on my face when I pop it in my gob. As the biggest seller in my mum’s butty shop, Spam is clearly showing no signs of losing it’s popularity amongst the people, but in terms of restaurants – it’s pretty impossible to find. A big hitter during the Second World War, Spam’s popularity continued throughout the latter half of the 20th Century, most noticeably in the US and amongst the Monty Python lads.

As well as the aforementioned (and ridiculously named) Spam-a-lama Ding Dong Sandwich at Bunny Jackson’s, the only other Spam product I could find was the Spam Chips at Cane & Grain which I must admit – are pretty special in themselves and even better alongside a rack of ribs.

Unfortunately, none of the city’s genius chefs have re-invented the Spam Fritter though, an absolute classic of a dish which was basically just a deep-fried slab of Spam alongside some chips and beans. I would suggest you head to one of the city’s chippies to grab one but I’m yet to find one that does them – so either make your own or head to Oldham.

There’s plenty more that I’ve not had space to talk about here, especially desserts (Arctic Roll, Baked Alaska, Rice Pudding) and drinks, so it’s likely there’ll be a Part 2 sometime or other. In the meantime – enjoy your old school treats!