Nowadays, we eat out for pleasure. Not so very long ago, things were very different. Then, for all but the very wealthy, eating out was a grim necessity to be quietly endured at a local government run canteen. Prosaically titled “British Restaurants”, the nationwide chain of canteens served rationed meals to hungry Britons between 1940 and 1947.
Black and white footage of the utilitarian canteens provided the opening for recent BBC4 documentary, “Spicing up Britain: How Eating Out Went Exotic.” In one propagandising clip, a ‘plucky’ Brit straight from a Harry Enfield sketch extolled the joys of dining in a “British Restaurant.” But I doubt very much whether anyone was convinced – either then or now. Clearly, we deserved better and the programme entertainingly explained how immigrants transformed our drab culinary landscape and put a smile on the nation’s face.
The first Berni Inn opened in Bristol in 1955, just a year after rationing ended, and many more quickly sprung up across the country. The brainchild of Italian immigrants, Frank and Aldo Berni, the inns offered simple and affordable, but good quality, food in a reassuring pub setting and were an absolute godsend for those keen to taste a little of the long promised, but as yet undelivered, “New Britain.”
Berni Inns were synonymous with steak but for this week’s first wine pairing I, at the risk of inviting much ridicule, would like to select another classic item from the Berni menu, namely, the Prawn Cocktail. These days, the once hugely popular Prawn Cocktail is regarded as irredeemably naff but for those willing to ignore fashion’s diktats, it’s still a joy when paired with a fruity rosé such as the Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo, Caparrone. The wine is fresh and vibrant with strawberry and cherry flavours and has a zesty acidity that perfectly offsets the richness of the Prawn Cocktail’s accompanying Marie Rose sauce.
Notably, the Berni brothers achieved success with a concept based on American steak houses but thousands of their fellow countrymen gave us glamour seeking Brits a touch of ‘La Dolce Vita’ in trattorias up and down the land and we, ever willing, gamely .guzzled gallons of basket enshrouded Chianti!
However, in an exception to the programme’s theme, it was an Englishman, Peter Boizot, who brought the Italian street food staple, pizza, in from the street and onto the restaurant table when he created Pizza Express in 1965. Still with great appeal 50 years later, pizza, a dish laden with melted cheese and tomato sauce, calls for a punchy red from Italy’s deep South. My favourite pizza pairing is the Primitivo Salento by Paolo Leo – a spicy, sunburnt concoction of blackberries, cherries and plums.
The next cuisine to be celebrated in the programme was Chinese or, to be more precise, Cantonese. German Riesling is great with Cantonese food but it’s deeply unfashionable and may not find favour with your dining companions. If that’s the case, go for the Tea Leaf Chenin Blanc from South Africa which is rich and full with ripe apple and pear flavours.
To finish, the documentary told of the mass immigration from the Sylhet region of Bangladesh in 1971. Thousands fled the region as war broke out between west Pakistan and east Pakistan (newly declared as Bangladesh) and this huge influx of people soon led to the proliferation of curry houses across the nation.
Curry isn’t the easiest match for wine because hot food numbs the palate to the subtleties of wine. However, if you avoid the eye-wateringly hot dishes there are wines that complement curry. Reds need to be soft and fruity but whites are a much better bet and grapes such as Gerwürztraminer and Pinot Gris have the necessary flamboyance to cope with curry’s exotic nature.