For a newspaper to cover food these days is regarded as a necessity. When the Observer started doing so, in the early 1950s, it was a move so brave it was verging on the foolhardy. Yes, there were the stirrings of a postwar food culture. Raymond Postgate had published his first Good Food Guide in 1951 and the following year George Perry-Smith opened The Hole in the Wall in Bath, a restaurant like no other. It served risotto and goulash, quiche lorraine and bouillabaisse. But sugar rationing did not end in Britain until September 1953 and meat was still on ration until July 1954. Food had been, and in many ways remained, a matter of national survival.
And yet in 1952, the Observer began publishing a cookery column by one Ernestine Carter, and it was not about getting by on meagre supplies. It was, as food has always been for this paper, a celebration. She was offering recipes for chicken hollandaise with a side dish of avocado mousse, followed by a coffee soufflé. That said, she did have a modern dislike for faff and bother. “Beware,” she wrote in July 1952, “of any cookery book that uses the word ‘lovingly’. It is simply a euphemism for ‘long’.” Quite.
Carter’s column suggested a now familiar belief that food was as worthy a subject for analysis as anything on the literary or foreign pages. It was not always shared. When she moved off to work elsewhere she was replaced by a writer who insisted upon a pseudonym, perhaps out of embarrassment. For a few years our food column ran under the name Syllabub, though it was an altogether more masculine affair than the lightness of the word might suggest. He – and we know it was a he – wrote about the appeal of roasted mutton with a good layer of fat, to be served with onion sauce, and a watercress soup made less dainty by the addition of eggs and significant dollops of cream.
Throughout the 1960s, the thriller writer Len Deighton was much more upfront. Indeed, the whole point of his contributions to the Observer, his Basic French Cookery Course, presented in a ground-breaking comic strip form, was to demystify the kitchen for men. It was no accident that for all his talents in the intelligence business, Deighton’s most famous character, the spy Harry Palmer, was also a dab hand in the kitchen. (The Observer Food Monthly once again publishes comic strips by Deighton.) Meanwhile, the great Katharine Whitehorn was contributing columns that would eventually become Cooking in a Bedsitter, a volume seemingly given to almost every new student setting off for university.
But without doubt it was the late Jane Grigson who established this newspaper’s reputation as a publication that was serious about its food, with the recipe column that she wrote from 1968 right up until her death in 1990. Not that her writing was worthy or stolid; quite the reverse. She had a lightness of touch. But she came to writing about food from a life in scholarship, and that intellectual curiosity was soaked into every paragraph. She was never just interested in how a dish was made. She also wanted to know where dishes came from and why. Her columns, including her pullout series, in turn spawned books – Good Things in 1971, for example, or English Food in 1974 – which are now considered classics and are still very much referred to. The chef Jeremy Lee features a bunch of Grigson recipes on his menu at the Soho restaurant, Quo Vadis.
In the 1980s, Grigson was joined by Paul Levy, another escapee from the world of literature, who wrote one of the first non-recipe-based food columns in a newspaper. He bestowed upon this paper the dubious honour of being the source of the word “foodie” when, in 1984, he co-authored The Foodie Handbook with the paper’s esteemed features editor, Ann Barr. (As it happens, Barr was also responsible for co-authoring the Sloane Ranger Handbook, and therefore for coining that term, too.) More usefully, at least for me, Levy convinced his editors to let him review restaurants so that, along with Jonathan Meades at the Times, he became one of this country’s first national newspaper restaurant critics. In time, Levy would be replaced as restaurant critic by the likes of novelist John Lanchester, Kate Flett and, for one curious period, Will Self.
Over a decade ago we launched OFM, giving us a terrific platform from which to view the world of how and what we eat in all directions. But without doubt the modern story of the Observer’s food coverage was defined by the arrival in 1993 of the brilliant Nigel Slater. He shares Grigson’s intellectual curiosity and deftness of prose, alongside Ernestine Carter’s suspicion of the kitchen as a place of chores. But he brings something else that’s entirely his own: an instinctive understanding of how ingredients work together and when; a gloriously emotional connection to food. You can recognise a Nigel recipe even without seeing his name on it.
And so this account would not be complete without one of his: a gloriously wintry dish of long-braised beef cheeks with prunes and anise…
Beef cheeks with prunes and anise
As the cheeks cook, they may become very dark in colour. Don’t worry, just turn them over in the sauce and leave to cook until tender. I like to serve these with fat, floury boiled potatoes. You will need a spoon for the “gravy”.
olive oil 2 tbsp
beef cheeks 2, large (about 900g total weight)
banana shallots 6, medium
carrots 250g, young and small
beef stock 500ml
star anise 4
coriander leaves a large handful
Brown the cheeks in the oil over a moderate heat, letting them colour on both sides. Lift the cheeks out of the pan and set aside. Peel the shallots and cut each in half from root to tip. Add the shallots to the pan and let them colour lightly on both sides.
Heat the oven to 160C/gas mark 3.
Scrub the carrots, add them to the shallots, then pour in the sake and stock. Tuck in the prunes and the star anise. Season with salt and pepper, then cover with a lid and slide into the oven. Bake, turning over from time to time, for three hours until tender.
Add the coriander leaves and serve with lightly steamed greens, such as bok choi or spring cabbage.
- This article was amended on 4 December 2016 to correct an editing error that confused Paul Levy with Ann Barr.