Forgotten foods: Feeling noshtalgic?
Devilled kidneys, Welsh rabbit, kedgeree – a band of culinary movers and shakers is determined to return these old favourites to glory. By Alice-Azania Jarvis
Wednesday 15 September 2010
First things first. Welsh rabbit is not just cheese on toast. It is cheese, egg, mustard, ale and various other pantry accoutrements on toast. And it is pronounced the way it is spelt: "rabbit", like the animal. Unless, that is, you happen to call it "rarebit", which some people do, though be warned – this is not Delia's preferred option. She made that quite clear more than a decade ago, in Delia Smith: How To Cook Book Two, when she, in that unerringly authoritative way, proclaimed: "Rarebit or rabbit? I like the latter!"
Such controversies are not unusual within the realm of home cooking. Does one butter a scone? Is gravy stirred, sieved, or neither? Are roast potatoes par-boiled, then roasted or do you just bung them straight in the oven? Why do we care? Because these are foods we feel strongly about. They are the foods of our childhood; the foods of whom a quick whiff is sufficient to initiate a prolonged trek down memory lane. They are, in short, nostalgia foods.
Lari Robling is a food writer from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Every year, come Thanksgiving, her grandmother would make the same dish: Parker House rolls with baked beans. The year of her death, however, they weren't there. No one else knew how to make them. "It was as if there was a gaping hole in the table," Robling tells me. "So I went on my own little quest to recreate them."
It wasn't just rolls, though. Robling began asking friends what dishes they missed most from childhood. Soon she was up to her elbows in macaroni and cheese, green goddess dressing and, yes, Welsh rabbit. "I would ask friends from all over the world for suggestions. A friend in Germany suggested a meatball dish her mother used to make, though she couldn't remember what it was called. It turned out to be Königsberger Klopse. My father kept reminiscing over a "dark cabbage" dish. It was only when I interviewed Darina Allen that I realised he was talking about colcannon."
The result of her efforts is a gloriously retro compilation called Endangered Recipes: Too Good to Be Forgotten. Divided into cosily titled sections such as "Sunday Suppers" and "Rainy Days", the book offers more than just a glimpse of the past: it's a kind of social history by way of the oven. Molly Goldberg's chopped chicken livers sit alongside recipes for brisket, gingerbread and home-made baked beans. The best part of the process, says Robling, has been seeing readers' reactions when they clock an old favourite. "It's a joy. People look up and go, 'Why did we ever stop making this?'"
The quest to revive lost classics isn't, however, limited to Robling's Philadelphia kitchen. Our own, quintessentially British equivalent, is happening, too. Last year, at a trendy crossroads in Shoreditch, East London, Terence and Vicki Conran opened the Boundary Project with Peter Prescott. A multi-storey hotel and restaurant site, the ground floor is given over to the Albion Caff, a casual, phenomenally popular destination for those in search of kippers, devilled kidneys – and Welsh rabbit.
"There are a host of dishes that have fallen out of favour due to poor execution," explains Prescott. "There's this idea that it is 'only steak and kidney pudding'. But in fact so many of these dishes have happy memories attached to them. We wanted to have that familiar, comforting feel, but we wanted to do it well, using the best possible ingredients and the correct techniques."
Unlike Robling, who recreates her "endangered recipes" with the inclusion of modern inflections, the chefs at Albion have made a point of staying true to the real thing. They have produced a menu that is both palpably familiar and, at times, and flirtatiously novel. "What's kedgeree?" asks a friend when we lunch there one Saturday, prompting the conclusion that several of Prescott et al's dishes were rather closer to extinction than they might have seemed.
In fact, says Prescott, kedgeree is one Albion's biggest sellers. So are the devilled kidneys, burned cream, and stew with dumplings. The foods of our forefathers, have proven, once revived, as winning as ever. We shouldn't be surprised. After all, we're talking tastes that have stood the test of time. As vice-chair and cookery and presentation judge at the National Federation of Women's Institutes, Anne Harrison has been observing the whims of British diners since she joined the WI in 1966.
"I've always cooked traditional food," she tells me. "I would bake three different types of cake for tea, make steamed sponges or casseroles with dumplings. Things would go in and out of fashion, but when we had visitors they would love it. It was nostalgia. We all like to look back to our childhoods."
The return of the forgotten classic has been a while in the making. It was the dawn of the new millennium when Nigella Lawson's How To Be A Domestic Goddess returned steak and kidney pudding and steamed syrup sponge to dinner parties. Then Jamie Oliver's Cook gave us a recipe for prawn cocktail, then synonymous with 1970s naff but now a staple. On the high street, meanwhile, so-called "nostalgia food" is big business. When Marks & Spencer launched a range of retro sweets last year – jars of liquorice and boxes of Battenberg cake – sales soared.
"Since then we've seen sales of forgotten meat cuts go through the roof," says Liz Williams from the company's food PR team. "Belly, shin, brisket. In fact, pork belly is our fastest growing meat line. Likewise beetroot, which is up 40 per cent on last year, kippers, and sardines – things that used to be thought of as unfashionable or something your nan might serve – are big sellers." Due to demand, the store has had to introduce a new range of scotch eggs. Pork pies are doing equally swift business. The past is far from passé.
Of course there is more to the trend than mere retro whimsy. More traditional fare is, in many ways, particularly well-suited to our modern needs and concerns. Notes Harrison: "People are a lot more interested in what goes into their food. I remember butter falling out of vogue, and everyone using margarine. But you never knew what was in it, did you? Now people are returning to butter and basic ingredients. You know what goes into it."
She's right. While the exotic multiculturalism of the British culinary landscape has only enriched our diet, our pandemic taste for convenient, processed, high-salt, high-sugar foods hasn't. Even our impulse towards "low fat" options is problematic. Increasingly, say nutritionists, we would benefit from simply eating like our ancestors: whole, un-fiddled-about-with produce.
This week the National Trust is launching a Robling-esque campaign to stop a range of tastes from, as they put it "becoming extinct". Our regions, says their research, each have a unique palate, dominated by specific flavours: gamey richness in the Midlands, creamy sweetness in the South West. Whether or not their theory carries any weight, it looks as though it will garner plenty of attention. The Trust plans to hold a series of high-profile events inviting celebrity chefs and food personalities along for the ride. Traditional family cooking might be on the endangered list – but with champions like Robling, Prescott, Harrison and the NT, the classic dishes it has produced look like they might, just, be saved from the brink.
'Endangered Recipes: Too Good to Be Forgotten' by Lari Robling is published by Abrams Books, £12.99.
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