Dr Derek J Ripley on the history of foreign food in Lancashire

LAN Oct14 Hidden Lancs

LAN Oct14 Hidden Lancs - Credit: Archant

Our resident historian Dr Derek J Ripley looks back at Lancashire early attempt at con-fusion food

The distinctive red, white and blue roundel used to promote Uncle Bills Meat-Free Meatballs

The distinctive red, white and blue roundel used to promote Uncle Bills Meat-Free Meatballs - Credit: Archant

Anyone who has wandered along the promenade at Morecambe may be forgiven for not noticing the boarded-up building tucked between a betting shop and a tanning salon. Yet it is a place of pilgrimage to those who recall the wonderful foods that were once served in the little Italian café.

Even on a typical August Bank Holiday, it’s not unusual to see one or two elderly folk huddled in the doorway to escape the wind and lashing rain, perhaps recalling the first time they had tasted exotic foodstuffs in the cosy confines of what was Antonia’s Tripe and Pasta Hut.

Opened in 1898 by William Blunt and his wife Antonia, daughter of Italian soprano Basil Gnocchi, it served a fusion of the tastes of Lancashire and Italy such as fish, chips and pesto gravy, meat and potato lasagne and pizza with a reticular tripe topping. The exotic marriage of the flavours of the Mediterranean and Irish Seas created a taste sensation and made even tripe palatable. Such was Antonia’s reputation, she was briefly employed at the Wigan School of Home Economics as a visiting lecturer in Pasta Studies in the Department of Italian Gastronomy.

The café was hugely popular with long-distance horse and carriage drivers, particularly those of mixed Lancashire and Italian descent who enjoyed dishes such as spaghetti wiganese and black pudding ice cream. But by far and away the most popular dish on the menu was Antonia’s meatballs – a point not lost on the couple’s nephew – also William – who visited the café frequently while holidaying from Wigan, where he ran a burgeoning fridge magnet manufacturing business.

It was 1914, and Britain was on a war footing. Young William persuaded Aunt Antonia to give him her secret meatball recipe and bribed government officials to let him supply them – marketed as Uncle Bill’s Meatballs - under licence to British troops, together with a free fridge magnet with each tin.

He set about manufacturing the meatballs at his Wigan factory. They were an instant hit. The soldiers couldn’t get enough of the delicious dish and the fridge magnets came in useful for target practice. Soldiers’ wives back home in Lancashire knew that when the postman delivered an envelope with MRWIGH (Meatballs Ready When I Get Home) on the back, that meant it was from their husbands.

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Soldiers even took up a marching song dedicated to the meatballs with the memorable chorus:

Stuff the bloomin’ Germans, Stuff the bloomin’ Gauls

All I want when I get home, Is Uncle Bill’s Meatballs

Encouraged by the positive response, William launched the meatballs on to the domestic market in 1916, backed up by a sophisticated advertising campaign by featuring Uncle Bill in the style of Lord Kitchener. The rousing slogan Get Some Balls was perfect for a nation at war.

Then disaster struck. The war came to an end. Even worse, meat was to be rationed. Knowing he had created an insatiable appetite for his meatballs, William decided to come up with a meat-free version. Uncle Bill’s Meat-Free Meatballs were launched on to an unsuspecting public in 1918. Thanks to the tasty recipe with Italian herbs and a new advertising campaign by Spaatchcock and Spaatchcock which featured the world famous pacifist and vegetarian, Mahatma Gandhi, sales of Uncle Bill’s Meat-Free Meatballs soon began to outstrip the original variety. In 1929, Gandhi visited the factory to collect a free tin as a thank you when the millionth tin was sold.

Then another disaster struck. In the early thirties, William decided to try to break into the lucrative German market, which was dominated by Dr Müller’s Königsberger Klopse Ohne Fleisch. On the advice of his advertising agency, he decided to hire Adolf Hitler, an up and coming German politician, to promote his meat-free meatballs in a new advertising campaign.

By 1936, it was clear that this had not been a wise decision. When war was declared, sales fell off a cliff — as did Uncle Bill shortly afterwards while walking Simon, his pet Yorkie, on Helvellyn on Christmas Day, 1939.

For more of this madness buy Forgotten Lancashire and parts of Cheshire and the Wirral by Dr Derek J Ripley. To purchase a copy go to www.forgottenlancashire.co.uk

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