There’s nothing new about enjoying a pint and a couple of snacks at the bar while chatting to friends. For some time now I’ve been using it as a discreet way to add a couple of calories to my diet while some more healthy food is being lovingly prepared for me at home.
While tucking into some delicious, and rather fancy, pork crackling and apple sauce at the bar the other day, it did get me wondering how the bar snacks have evolved over the years I have spent drinking in pubs.Don’t get me wrong, I am one of the last few remaining people who enjoys a pickled egg in the pub (if you can still find one) and I have also been known to consume my body weight in crisps and nuts, but I must admit to being relieved to have seen the recent improvements in the category.
Before we look at what are today’s most brilliant bar snacks, let’s first remind ourselves of the background to this institution and how they came about.
Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor records one of the earliest examples of people who made their living selling snacks on the street and in public houses as far back as the 1850s. Pub-goers were lucky enough to be offered pickled whelks (‘not to fill themselves, but for a relish’), boiled green peas, fried fish, pies and sheep trotters. In short, anything that didn’t require cutlery was probably being eaten in pubs.
At the turn of the century the pub snack took a turn for the better when Frank Smith of Cricklewood, North London, started selling his packeted crisps with a sachet of salt included, making them the perfect, convenient, thirst-inducing pub snack.
By 1949 an article from the Economist summarised pub food as ‘a packet of crisps or a flaccid sardine on leathery toast’ and, in the same year, Smith’s Potato Crisps annual company statement proudly boasted of supplying nearly every public house in the country.
Seafood hawkers selling shrimps, prawns and crab sticks as well as cockles and whelks served with a good dose of salt, vinegar and pepper were an established staple in seaside towns and ports, however the tradition has sadly died out, possibly due to a mixture of landlords missing out on the potential income stream or today’s stricter hygiene requirements demanded from punters and publicans alike.
There’s nothing to record when pork scratchings made the leap from the butcher’s shop to pub but the great surge seems to have been post-WWII, and part of the general trend toward anything (a) salty and (b) that could be put into a cellophane packet. Certainly, by the 1970s, pork scratchings had become a pub cliché along with thirst-inducing twiglets, scampi fries and roasted peanuts as influences from the US grew.
The theme for bar snacks continued along the same vein until the emergence of the gastro pub, when the quality of food in pubs took a turn for the better. Rather than simply providing food with the sole purpose to induce thirst, new creative ideas came to the fore as Brits welcomed new and exotic tastes from around the world.
New arrivals included beef jerky or biltong from South Africa, chilli rice crackers from Asia and Wasabi peas from Japan. All met the brief of being easy to eat, thirst creating and tasty.
I’m pleased to say that today’s pubs have continued to evolve and have now gone that one step further with regard to quality and taste. They’ve also proudly gone back to their British roots and I was delighted to have recently tried some deep fried duck hearts, black pudding fritters and deliciously warm scotch eggs with runny centres. What’s not to love with these quite brilliant bar snacks?