Marmite's getting a 21st-century makeover. Sales of Angel Delight are booming. Tinned meat pies are on the rise. Why are our taste buds drawn to the past? Jonathan Margolis tucks into a feast of nostalgia

To its detractors - and there are many - it's the brand that refuses to die. An anachronism. An unwelcome, unappetising reminder of wartime austerity. Designed to be spread thinly on slices of wholesome, hard-earned bread, it evokes the pre-consumer age, when larders were bare and housewives had to make a little go a very long way.

Yet the announcement that Marmite is to be repackaged in a squeezy bottle for the 21st century is a graphic demonstration of the role of food in society's collective memory- and our continuing appetite for the Foods That Made Britain Great.

Next time you're in a supermarket, cast an eye beyond the organic carrots and luxury ready-meals. The shelves are packed with items that most of us would bet haven't been there for years. Take (and you wouldn't think many people do) Izal Medicated Toilet Tissue - that gruesome tracing paper beloved of school janitors before about 1970. When did Izal's onion-skin loo paper go unlamented to the grave? The Seventies? The Eighties? Wrong: it's still on the shelves. And at 69p for 210 sheets in Sainsbury's, it's not particularly cheap.

The editor of The Grocer, Julian Hunt, says products that refuse to die are called "orphan brands" by marketing people. "These are the smaller, older brands that big multinationals sell off because they no longer fit. Things like Vim, Ambrosia, Harmony hairspray and Bird's custard. Certain specialised companies are adept at buying these brands up and keeping them alive.

"And don't underestimate," Hunt says, "how big some of these orphan brands actually are. Fray Bentos sounds like it hasn't existed for years, but as a brand, it's worth £33m a year. It's quite difficult to get brands to do the decent thing and die."

Some brands self-resurrect. Products such as Pot Noodle, Jammie Dodgers biscuits and indeed Marmite are "re-owned" by new generations of teenagers and students.

Other retro groceries have a hidden agenda that helps them to survive. Most tinned vegetables are among these. No rational person would buy them to eat, but sales soar around harvest festival time when millions of churchgoers and schoolchildren have to give a basket of non-perishable foodstuffs for distribution to the elderly. What the elderly do with them is a mystery.

Then there's the rejuvenation-via-PR trick. Horlicks was recently given the resurrection treatment with a campaign in which trendy London bars were somehow prevailed upon to tell journalists that they were selling late-night mugs of Horlicks to clubbers. The same PR people, Mark Borkowski's agency, had relaunched Hovis - and are doing the same now with Bisto.

But the classic orphan brands are those left to fend for themselves, with no advertising or PR - or indeed any support at all. Here then, is our guide to the supermarket ghosts, the brands they couldn't kill.

ANGEL DELIGHT

The one-time children's favourite Angel Delight has just been given a radical refurb by another expert in the corporate corpse-revival business, Premier Ambient Foods of Spalding, Lincs. It bought Angel Delight from a doubtless relieved Kraft a year ago, along with Bird's custard. Angel Delight is selling 15 million packs a year and has reclaimed its place as "the No 1 brand in the instant desserts sector". And with its strange, wallpaper-paste-like ability to thicken in minutes, it now comes in a trendy package covered in street-type lingo.

"We don't see Angel Delight as a dying brand at all," says Premier's convenience foods and spreads manager, Julian Dunn. "It is loved by consumers, and for a £1bn company like ours, it's significant."

CAMP COFFEE

Camp Coffee is marketed as coffee and chicory essence with added sugar, but strictly speaking - at 4 per cent coffee and 26 per cent chicory - it is sugar with added chicory and coffee.

Amazingly, for such a British product, Camp is "made in the EU", according to the bottle, which directs consumers to write to Cathy Richards at McCormick for more info. Surprisingly, Richards exists. "I get loads of people saying they're 84 or whatever years old and they can't believe we can still get Camp," she says. Camp, one must imagine, will soon get a trendy make-over; at least one celebrity chef has included a dash of Camp in a recipe.

BISTO

Bisto gravy powder, in the same brown pack as 70 years ago (minus the cartoon urchin), is one of those brands that should, surely, be dead. In fact, 18,000 tons of the stuff - a billion servings - are sold each year, and consumption is rising by 5 per cent annually. Made by Centura, a Surrey-based part of the foods corporation RHM, Bisto is the ultimate triumph of retro style over content; it consists of potato starch, salt, wheat starch, colour, dried yeast, onion powder and that's it. It is, essentially, edible brown.

Shockingly, the instructions are in French. Does French cuisine have a dirty little secret? But, as Borkowski PR (drafted in last October to "do a Horlicks" on the brand) says, the explanation is that it's Belgium that loves Bisto. And Belgians pride themselves on being perverse.

IZAL

Izal "strong toilet tissue" must be the most unsuitable product in history for its role. But the forbidding green box, with its whiff of school toilets circa 1966, still boasts that Izal is "the best in family hygiene".

The maker Jeyes is sporting when asked the Izal question. "It is bought mainly by the older age group and we have steady sales," says the marketing director, Jayne Hazlewood. "We recently had a letter from Africa from a gentleman who had bought a case a few years ago and wished to buy another as it was the only thing that would do."

Do what, precisely? Hazlewood could not guess.

PEARCE DUFF'S BLANCMANGE POWDER

Most people under 80 will have little idea what blancmange is - a wobbly, vaguely milky jellified pudding, often with lumps, left to set in a bulbous mould. It was regarded even 50 years ago as suitable only for elderly invalids.

Getting through to Pearce Duff's owners, Kerry Foods of Surrey, is harder than speaking to MI5, but I bluster past its cagey switchboard by pretending to be a bulk blancmange-buyer. "The blancmange market is just Pearce Duff. That's it," says the brand manager. "The brand started in 1847. We manufacture in South Yorkshire and sell 700,000 units of Pearce Duff annually, across three flavours, worth £0.5m retail. And sales growth [yes, growth] is upwards of 7 per cent."

ROBERTSON'S GOLDEN SHRED MARMALADE

Another survivor from RHM's cabinet of curiosities, Golden Shred is a "fine-cut orange jelly marmalade", with emphasis, one would think, on the jelly. Robertson's may have been eclipsed by trendier brands, but there's still a "By appointment to HM the Queen" on the jar.

We don't believe Her Maj eats Robertson's marmalade, although it's not hard to imagine Philip grumbling about the disappearance of the trademark golliwogs. These days, Robertson's is partnered with the late Roald Dahl, who would surely have been appalled at helping to sell such a corporate marmalade.

FRAY BENTOS STEAK AND KIDNEY PIE

Fray Bentos was originally responsible for most of our Argentinian corned beef, but as that delight declined after the Falklands War, it had to get clever. In the case of this tinned pie ("succulent steak and kidney in delicious Oxo gravy topped with light puff pastry"), the Fray-ness is more retro than the product itself. The first ingredient of the pie is water (but hey, that's my first ingredient, too). Then it's 19.5 per cent beef and 15.5 per cent kidney. Fray Bentos is one of a swath of retro brands bought up by Campbell's Soups, themselves no spring chickens in the grocery world.

FARROW'S GIANT MARROWFAT PROCESSED PEAS

The label on this, another of Campbell's nostalgia brands, doesn't seem to have changed in 50 years. A harvest festival staple, it's hard to imagine what people do with these. But they sell several million tins a year.

SPAM

Spam - "chopped pork and ham" - is made in Denmark of 89 per cent pork. The Monty Python people and spam e-mail have given this Second World War brand a huge PR boost.

In 1937, when it was invented in the US, it was known as "The Meat of Many Uses" - one of which, presumably, was eating. Now, it has been trendied-up to within an inch of its life; the website ( www.spam-uk.com) lists recipes such as a Spam black pepper wrap and Spam pizza.

BIRD'S DREAM TOPPING

The ingredients for this "dessert topping mix with sweetener" from Kraft Foods read like a chemistry textbook, but Kraft craftily makes use of a somewhat ersatz formulation: "Contains a source of phenylalanine for vegetarians," the label says. Look up phenylalanine - is it a warning or a recommendation? - and it turns out to be both. Phenylalanine is a constituent of the controversial artificial sweetener, aspartame. But it's a good one; an essential amino acid that can't be made by the body and needs to be supplied in the diet. So good old Dream Topping is good for you. Sort of.

HEINZ SANDWICH SPREAD

"The perfect addition to any sandwich," says Heinz, which makes this tasty retro gloop in Holland. It's not clear what it should be added to, as it's quite pleasant on its own. Impressively, Sandwich Spread contains 42 per cent vegetables.

SMASH

Smash had one of the greatest TV ads ever - the aliens laughing at an old-fashioned potato. Spuds had the last laugh, though, and now everyone prefers real potatoes. Not that Smash, under new owners HL Foods of Lincolnshire, isn't real potato; as the pack says, it's 94 per cent potato, 99 per cent fat free and with vitamin C (just like a potato).

TRILL

Whatever happened to budgies? So popular were the little Aussie birds that Trill budgie food was advertised on TV. Now it's barely visible on the shelves, but it's there.

BRASSO

Brasso metal polish, first made in Hull in 1905, helped to win two world wars. Part of every soldier's spit and polish regime for a century, Brasso boasts the Ministry of Defence as its biggest customer, and it's a multimillion pound brand. Today's makers, Reckitt Benckiser, won't say exactly how big the market is, and MoD spending on Brasso is, of course, a military secret. But you can buy it in Sainsbury's.

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