Just add nostalgia: The foods that made Britain great

Even the most exacting foodies have a place in their hearts for the sugar-packed, factory-made treats that so many of us were raised on.
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Question: which nationally famous dish, enjoyed by millions from its first appearance in 1967, is made of whey powder combined with several emulsifiers and gelling agents and (despite these unlovely ingredients) was originally marketed as a health food? Answer: Angel Delight, that violently coloured, light-textured mousse that your mum used to serve to the family in prawn-cocktail glasses. We may flinch to think of it now, when our idea of pudding in 2009 is fresh raspberries with organic rennet from Daylesford. But there was a time when Angel Delight seemed the business. It was groovily modern, cognate with colour TV and King's Road shops and Mini-Minors. It was only a pudding, but its very tastelessness seemed to mean something.

Think of the food you grew up with, before supermarkets became crammed with delicatessen treats and farm-assured produce. Think of the heavily manufactured stuff, the snacks and sauces and treats you ate because they were always there: Tunnock's tea cakes, Shippam's fish paste, McVitie's Jaffa cakes, Vesta chow mein. How vividly they lurk in your gastric memory: HP sauce on a late-night bacon sandwich, Del Monte pineapple rings with a maraschino cherry in the hole... How perfectly Heinz Salad Cream blended with hard-boiled eggs and lettuce on a picnic (so much better than mayonnaise). And was there any more satisfying engulfment in the world than drenching a plate of apple crumble with Bird's instant custard?

The intense nostalgia we feel for these brands is tinged with embarrassment. How could we ever have tucked into something called Mr Brain's Faggots? And wasn't it disappointing that Battenberg cake, so colourful on the plate, turned out to taste of almonds and yucky marzipan? But these foods are indelibly part of our upbringing. Their terminal naffness has passed into a new territory of kitsch acceptance.

Two enterprising broadcasters, Nigel Cassidy and Philippa Lamb, have gathered them all into a cornucopia of gastro-tackiness called Battenberg Britain: A Nostalgic Tribute to the Foods We Loved. In it, they summon up the problematic delights of Bisto, Atora, Ready Brek et al, and tell the curious histories behind their manufacture.

Did you know you can search the length and breadth of Italy without encountering Neapolitan ice cream? Or that Mr Kipling's French Fancies (which I still buy, despite the fact that only the yellow ones actually taste of anything) had nothing French about them? And that a rumour persisted for years that Battenberg cake was invented by Hitler's grandmother?

Thanks to Cassidy and Lamb, we learn that Mssrs Tate & Lyle, the sugar barons, never met face to face, and their descendants never visited each other's factories. One factory made sugar cubes, the other Golden Syrup. Neither product managed to sweeten relations between the business-rivals-turned-collaborators.

The most extraordinary story, however, concerns the label of Camp coffee, the world's first instant coffee. It's syrupy and pre-sweetened and has an odd undertaste of chicory, but it was all the rage during the Second World War. It started life, however, 70 years earlier, when a Scottish regiment serving in India, the Gordon Highlanders, wrote to a Glasgow sauce manufacturer called Paterson, asking if he could supply some coffee-substitute that could be knocked together easily in a field kitchen. Paterson obliged with his bottled mixture of coffee, chicory, sugar and water and sent it to India. That's why the label showed a Sikh servant bringing a cup of coffee to a posh-looking officer in a kilt. (The label was redesigned a couple of years ago to show both Sikh and officer sitting down drinking coffee together – to the relief of the previously unheard-of Central Scotland Racial Equality Council.) But who was the soldier?

He was Major-General Sir Hector MacDonald, of the Gordon Highlanders, who fought in Afghanistan in 1879, and became a national hero after a display of bravery in the Battle of Omdurman. His fate was tragic: in 1903 he read in The New York Herald that a "grave charge" was about to be brought against him, and shot himself dead in a hotel bedroom in Paris. Whether the charge was homosexual behaviour or something else will never be known. But it's rather piquant that the Major-General should spent his afterlife with the word "CAMP" dangling over his head like the sword of Damocles. Just one of the myriad details that make British branded foods such an irresistible combination of the earnest and the ridiculous.

Excerpts adapted from 'Battenberg Britain' by Nigel Cassidy and Philippa Lamb (Michael O'Mara Books, £10)

Piccalilli

It's one of those foods that tend to provoke a violent response. Its roots lie thousands of miles away in the jars of "Achar" or pickled fruit and vegetables which 17th century European sailors used to buy in India. In recent years, in an attempt to win back sales, some manufacturers have cravenly toned down their recipes by easing back on the mustard and tumeric and adding more sugar. Contemporary recipes vary, but their invariably involve cauliflower, which may be part of the problem; if anyone can think of a more unfashionable vegetable then we'd be glad to hear of it.

Mushy peas

The young Peter (now Lord) Mandelson is apocryphally supposed to have mistaken mushy peas for guacomole in a fish and chip shop. Which neatly illustrates what used to be a distinct north-south divide in the matter of pea consumption: while southerners had discovered frozen peas and guacomole, their northern cousins were still partnering their fish and chips with good old mushy peas. Mushy peas - or the unsquashed, marrowfat version - owe their improbably green hue to two notorious artificial colours, E102 and E133, which have long been living on borrowed time.

Strangely, the French prefer non-processed "garden" peas in tins to either mushy or frozen peas. For a nation of foodies, this is inexplicable.

Smash

If Smash had been advertised by some bossy 1970s housewife lecturing us on how yummy it was, we wouldn't think of it fondly. The 1974 TV ad has been hailed as the best TV character ad of all time. Who can forget those laughing Smash Martians? Smash was originally Cadbury's Smash. The company had decided to diversify and its first non-chocolate product was Marvel, a powdered milk. This set them down the road of instant being the next best thing. It is now part of the Premier Foods empire and 140 million servings are made every year.

Ambrosia Creamed Rice

No one could accuse Alfred Morris of modesty when he built a creamery and named it Ambrosia after the food that made the Greek Gods immortal. Though actually, it was the Romans who first made rice pudding. Mr Morris's first Ambrosia product was powdered milk and in the 1930s he started to can rice pudding. Fans of oven-cooked pudding with skin can never be bought off with tinned, yet Ambrosia gets close – the rice slips down in a creamy wave with only a hint of tin. That shade of beige remains a puzzle but that's nothing to the colour it turns with a spoonful of jam.

Angel Delight

How can anyone forget that first heavenly experience of Angel Delight, the desert with the addictively synthetic taste and a light fluffy texture? The stroke of genius was to cut the powdered mixture of sugar and starch with a cocktail of emulsifiers, gelling agents, flavourings and whey powder. It was targeted at the new time-poor generation of working parents in the 1960s. By the 1980s, however, nobody could be bothered to mix up a packet of stuff for tea; it was eclipsed by ready-to-eat upstarts such as frozen cheesecake. It may proclaim itself the "instant dessert for little angels". Given our ageing population, maybe they should target misty-eyed oldies instead.

Battenberg cake

Consumption of packet cakes may be falling, but the Battenberg battles on. The legendary, if non-existent, Mr Kipling is still knocking out a highly respectable 38 million Mini Battenbergs each year. Battenberg cakes remind us of Barbara Cartland. She was pink, sickly sweet and claimed to sell millions, but we have never met anyone who actually bought anything written by her. So do people buy them in secret from petrol stations, or just hide them under their rocket salad? Mysteriously, the one we bought contains no artificial colours. Yet it's still bright pink and yellow. How do they do that?

Corned beef

Until it closed in 1979, the original Fray Bentos factory was in Uruguay. Some fans have even made a pilgrimage to the site and once there, doubtless to the bewilderment of the tour guide, they often become emotional at the teatime memories the place name evokes. "Bully beef", as it was once known, is beef preserved by curing it in brine and then boiling it and used to be central to army rations, not least because it could be eaten cold, straight from the can.

Fray Bentos pies

Want to dine like its 1969? Then a pie cooked in its own tin is perfect. But in fact these store-cupboard steak or chicken delights are still worth £20m annually to Fray Bentos. Once you've wrestled the lid off, all you see is a lardy-looking layer of raw pastry. Stick the tin in the oven and you will be rewarded with a puff-pastry crust with yummy, gravy-soaked stuff above the slightly-metallic filling. If you don't like the soggy layer, turn the crust during cooking. But it's the best bit.

Arctic Roll

Birds Eye inherited Arctic Roll in 1959, when it bought an Eastbourne ice cream factory owned by a Czech lawyer called Ernest Velden. Birds Eye were selling 25 miles of roll a month 30 years ago, but couldn't compete when Viennetta was introduced in the early 1980s. Now, both Birds Eye and Lyons Maid are playing the nostalgia card and have relaunched their own versions as recession-beating treats.

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