Wall Street traders. Space Invaders.
Arcade dreams. Custard creams.
Kylie and Jason. Thatcher and Reagan.
HP sauce. Inspector Morse.
Band Aid. Live Aid. Cherry-ade. Kwik Save.
HIV, MTV, TUC, SDP.
Del Boy and Rodney. Deirdre on Corrie.
Just Say No. Farmer Barleymow.
Striking miners. Flash designers.
Berlin wall. Maradona’s handball.
Virgin Atlantic. Sticky-backed plastic.
Baywatch beach. Papa Don’t Preach.
Big hair. Polo necks. BHS. VHS.
ET. BT. Mr T. Ford Capri.
Donkey Kong and Pac Man. Now it’s Captain Caveman!
Scooby Dooby Doo, Where are you?
Ahh, the ‘80s.. That deeply-troubled decade of social inequality and oversized shoulder pads. And what of it? Why is my mind suddenly cast there?
Because right now I’m looking at a menu at Chez Bruce – a well-regarded restaurant on the verge of Wandsworth Common – and standing out from the text like a flashing blue siren from an ’80’s police procedural, is a word that takes me right back to that very decade: “Viennetta”…
Aha is playing on an oversized tape-recorder. My sister’s tuned into Grange Hill on a hulk of a TV set. And I’m 9 years-old again, polo-necked and corduroy-trousered, blissfully hammering away on my ZX Spectrum in a frenzied attempt to power a heavily-pixelated Daley Thompson to Olympic glory ( – scuppered only when the ‘Z’ key flies inauspiciously off the keyboard).
Suddenly, my mum hollers from the kitchen – “pudding’s ready!” – and I dash downstairs. But as I reach her, I find myself staring wide-eyed – lying resplendent on the table is the most incredible structure I’ve ever seen. My very first viennetta.
Creamy peaks and whorls rise up vertiginously from the plate, as if created by the greatest of tectonic forces and weathered over eons of time. A sprinkling of cocoa lies strewn along its frosted valleys.
I watch as my mum cuts through those iced layers of chocolate: the crisp crunch reminds me of walking through snow. With great care, she upends the slice onto a plate, and then places it in front of me.
Initially, I daren’t touch it. I just gaze at it in awe. Then, like a curious cat toying with a particularly enticing ball of wool, I inspect it more closely: prodding it here, padding it there, until eventually I approach the edge with a tentative teaspoon.
I steal a scoop from the corner. The ice-cream is cool against my lips and satisfyingly sweet. The brittle chocolate snaps between my teeth, before melting delightfully over my tongue.
I look up at mum, offering her the broadest smile and an approving thumbs-up. It is surely the best dessert I’ve ever had…
‘Are you ready to order now, sir?.. Sir?..’
A waiter is poised over me, curiously glancing at my thumb, which I’m perturbed to find is still pointing to the heavens, an echo from my daydream. I retract it somewhat sheepishly, under the guise of a stifled cough.
With my nostalgic reverie now truly burst, I proceed to run through my menu choices. I linger a little towards the end before deciding that I will also order dessert right now, just in case.
After all, it’s not often your long-lost favourite childhood dessert makes such an impromptu reappearance, and I’m not going to risk missing out. If the waiter is surprised by my eagerness, she fails to show it.
As I wait, I while away the time by reminiscing over some of my other favourite foods from that era. And since a flashback of Top Trumps also comes to mind – a game I played so obsessively throughout my childhood – I take a stab at coming up with my very own version, one referencing the food I so dearly loved as a child…
Flavour – 8. How was it possible for chips to be microwaved and yet come out all crispy? What substance – conceivably born from alien technology – did they coat them with? And have years of ingestion similarly made my own insides just as crunchy?
Branding – 10. Quite possibly the best food-related pun ever devised.
Flavour – 7. With its heavenly mélange of E-numbers, emulsifiers, and dubiously-sourced palm oil, this was indeed the confection of angels. Of course, it always had to be butterscotch.
Branding – 9. The manufacturer managed to convince the world that what we wanted was a product that looked just like dog turd. Of course, to a child, that was largely its appeal.
Flavour – 9. Vimto, the Northerner’s Ribena. Which naturally, as a Mancunian, made it superior. Nevermind the ‘80s, it actually originated from the 08’s, when it was peddled as a bona fide medicine – although then again, so were mercury and arsenic.
Branding – 6. Vimto may have started out as a so-called health tonic, but when partnered up with that other ’80s beverage sensation, SodaStream, the heady combination of cordial and carbonation heralded nothing less than the golden age of dentistry. My own teeth may have been permanently scarred, but my hippocampus contains nothing but the sweetest of memories.
Flavour – 1. At some point, sprinkling dehydrated produce all over the place would become Heston-esque de rigeur. But in the 1980’s, there was Smash.
Branding – 9. Looking like recycled daleks, those tin-pot TV aliens could not only climb stairs, but they had even mastered the subtle art of sarcasm. See how they mocked us mere Earthlings for our temerity to cook real vegetables, rather than bettering ourselves by reconstituting potato powder into amorphous sludge.
“And for you, the viennetta..”
Finally it arrives. Two otherwise delicious courses have seamlessly come and gone, but here is the main event – my beloved dessert – placed down in front of me by the waiter.
But something’s amiss: instead of appearing in its conventional black-and-white, this version is nothing less than a kaleidoscopic riot of colour.
I’m not surprised however. I know this place well. Yes, on the surface Chez Bruce appears indefatigably old-school, with its exemplary service, magnolia decor, and all-round genteel atmosphere.
But its cooking is what truly sets it apart: taking classical dishes and injecting them with boundless imagination and wizardry. And this viennetta is something else.
At first sight it looks like a dinky accordion, a child’s toy, with alternating stripes of luminous-pink rhubarb and white-chocolate thins. Lining the rim is a pistachio crumb of Day-Glo green.
Alongside, little yellow spheres of lemon-curd are interspersed with pink squares of poached rhubarb, like a psychedelic game of noughts-and-crosses played out by Alice in Wonderland.
The tension between sweet and sour is wondrous and daring. And when it comes to texture, there’s a delicate balance between the chocolate slivers, the crunchy pistachios, and the silky smooth curd.
It’s racy, playful, imaginative and fun. And as for innovation – in keeping with the Wonderland theme – this dessert really does show you how deep the rabbit-hole can go.
The 1980’s may not be renown for its food. But nostalgia has the curious power to reinvent and transform. And if this decade somehow inspired this glorious seasonal dessert at Chez Bruce, then who am I to judge. I just wonder what my 9 year-old self would have made of it all…
This is a new version of a review of Chez Bruce originally published two years ago, rewritten specifically for the “Sunday Times AA Gill Award for Emerging Food Critics”. Sadly for me, it didn’t make the cut, but the winners’ entries admittedly set the bar at an extremely high standard. And I’m now even more inspired to try again next year!
Besides, since writing this piece, it has taken me on a rather fun journey. Firstly, thanks to the vagaries of Twitter and the generosity of DJ Claire Sturgess, the opening paragraph was read out on Absolute Radio as part of their ’80 night. And following this, an old uni pal then got in touch after 23 years, only to reveal that the Viennetta was in fact invented by… his dad! (He had to sample over 100 versions as a kid before his father hit on the final recipe!..) In the meantime, if you fancy reading some more poetry, then feel free to check out another piece of mine, Koya Bar in 7 Haikus.
Back to the ’80s (at The Museum of Brands)