The knack of snacks
Katie Taylor celebrates and laments the British approach to pub snacks, and asks if we could learn anything from our European neighbours
Wednesday 07 November 2018
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Beer and food
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Is a Saturday afternoon pint really a pint if you haven’t got an opened-out packet of cheese and onion sat on the table, shared among two, or three, or four? It’s not quite tea time, but lunch was a couple of hours ago and you don’t want to head home to the slow cooker yet. Those crisps, or scratchings, or dry roasted peanuts – your choice, no judgements – are the delicious delicacies of the pub. When else do you truly savour the salty crunch of a perfect foldie (those beautiful doubled-over crisps packed with extra flavour)? At what other opportunity does bringing a couple of bags of Mini Chedz back to your table of friends raise your group status to Queen of Everything? Snacks and beer are classic bedfellows, and it’s important to remember to stock up mid-sesh. When news of a dying pub culture brings you down, visit your local and feel comforted by the resolutely outdated design of the scampi fries. They’ve survived, unchanged, for millions of years. Everything is going to be fine.
There is a feeling though, particularly if you’ve spent any time on the continent, that snacking culture is to be taken seriously, and we’ve always lagged behind. Where we see tapas as a fun sharey meal, perfect for leaving dos and birthdays, Spanish drinkers see it as a necessity. When you do snacking as well as they do, it’s hard to argue. What person in their right mind would even consider drinking anything alcoholic without a few slices of deep red, acorn-fed, 12-month matured ham on the side? You’d be laughed out of there, mate. Why would you visit a bar without a decent spread of pickled veg, cheeses and deep-fried, breaded things? The very idea is a travesty. Drinking without food? What are you doing, trying to save time? Why don’t you just cup your hands under the draft tap too while you’re at it, and cut out the middleman?
It’s not just Spain. Italy’s aperitivo culture is a wonderful institution that should be replicated everywhere. Sit down at a café table on a piazza and order a beer or an Apérol spritz (you’re on holiday, just do it), and a bowl of torn olive focaccia or salt and pepper almonds will appear before you momentarily, compliments of the bar. Every time. Food and drink go hand in hand here, and going without snacks is a crime. Why would you seek to indulge in the finer things in life and then leave out the finest thing of all?
In Greece, olives and ouzo are a birthright, and as integral to a decent late afternoon relaxation session as the sound of seabirds wheeling in the distant sky. In Portugal, bread and rich, oily sardine paste is as much of a reason to hit the bar as a mini Super Bock in the sunshine. Even in France, where snacking is pretty much avoided in favour of large meals that go on for entire weeks, bars and cafés often put out bowls of coated nuts and crisps at apéritif time to keep punters going until supper.
In countries where food is as important to social bonding as alcohol, it makes no sense to have one without the other. It’s an opportunity to share the wealth, feed your friends, make everyone happy and prolong your evening. Around the table, nobody’s downing pints and falling off chairs. There’s a bit of a buzz going, but only so the world can be set to rights at gradually increasing volumes. If you’ve ever sat at a Spanish dinner table, you’ll know that politics should never be discussed, until somebody brings it up. Then everyone’s involved, highlighting the politics of food and generosity and the confusing mesh of Spain’s cultural history as they tear bread together and disagree theatrically. Soon, you’ve had too much to eat and the arguing subsides, and everyone’s happy to call a truce. It’s time to leave in a flurry of hugging, final-snack-grabbing, and cheek-kissing.
Would our pub culture benefit from better snack provision? The Good Pub Guide reckons that British pubs have begun to focus too heavily on food, pointing towards boozers that have replaced their Quavers with gastronomic experimentation as evidence that the very notion of a sensible Good Pub is eroding into chaos before our very eyes. One minute, it’s edible sand. The next, fresh vegetables. It’s an epidemic.
Pubs have had to find ways to keep themselves relevant in an era where dining out is often the only major leisure expense people are willing to budget for. Food has a great profit margin – if you’re turning it around quickly enough – and thousands of pubs across the UK and Ireland have managed to change their fates by the addition of a short menu and a good chef.
While great food and drink are the best of friends and keeping pubs from closing should be encouraged in every possible way, it’s hard to know where the line should be drawn. Is it when dining areas take priority over seating for drinkers? Is it when they start winning awards for their food and paying less attention to the beer they order in?
It’s unreasonable to ask pub chefs to downplay their Masterchef skills (as The Good Pub Guide asks them to) if they have them, just because it might feel like your favourite bar has grown too big for its boots. However, if it’s at the cost of the beer they sell and the welcome they give everyone regardless of their orders, that’s another story.
There are successes. The Moorcock Inn in Sowerby Bridge treads the line between fine dining and muddy boots beautifully, and gets wildly hyperbolic reviews for incorporating its much-loved local pub into the whole experience, rather than ostracising it. The Inn at Whitewell also offers a dog-friendly country pub welcome, which lounges comfortably alongside its famous white tablecloth à la carte menu. Even the Freemasons at Wiswell, which makes no apologies for putting food high up on its agenda, manages to scoop Pub of the Year awards for its relaxed approach and lack of dress code. Pubs can do both.
But where does this leave snacks? Are we to spend the rest of our pub-going days choosing betwixt Honey Roasted Nobby’s Nuts and £8 black pudding scotch eggs? Will we ever catch up with our European mainland friends and offer a pub-going experience that’s fulfilling to our bellies as well as our thirst? Here are some suggestions that could really work in our locals, where a kitchen’s asking too much, but a few plates of scran wouldn’t go amiss. Pubs, if you’re reading this and feel like serving free snacks is too much of an additional expense, that’s cool. Just offer small plates for £1/£1.50. People will love you for it.
Lemon anchovy cicchetti
Venetian flair makes cichetti sound posher than it is. This snack is actually just tasty stuff on small slices of toasted bread - any crusty bread, even slices of baguette will do, just don’t tell Gino DiCampo.
Open a tin of good anchovies in olive oil, and lay them rustically on the toasted bread. Drizzle on some of the olive oil from the tin, rustically. Then, in a rustical manner, squeeze a touch of lemon juice on top. Add salt and pepper. Prego.
Bowls of crisps
What’s posher than packets of crisps? Bowls of crisps. Upgrade every drinking experience with a simple item of crockery that’s been with us since the beaker people. What flavour? That’s for you to decide.
Round in? Bowl of crisps. Couple of glasses of Sancerre? Bowl of crisps. Getting into late afternoon but not time to hand out the dinner menus yet? Bowls. Of. Crisps. Honey.
Not Insta as in Instagram. There are enough snappable ploughmans platters out there at thirteen quid a pop.
We’re talking a couple of pickled onions, a slab of cheddar and a big ole hunk of tiger loaf paired with a spoonful of Branston. Doesn’t even need to be on a chopping board if people are excited enough about the cheese. Ever heard of paper plates? They’ll do. Boom. Instant ploughmans.
(Side note: Remember those packet ploughmans that came with cream crackers? Genius. Just get some of those.)
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