In all fashions or fads — whether music, art or clothes — a trend rarely arrives fully fledged, and like leggings or high heels, keeps on returning. To me, retro food is dishes from approximately the end of rationing in the early 1950s.
I was a cook for a care home for eight years and while the elderly residents tolerated small helpings of old-fashioned food, such as shepherd’s pie, liver and bacon, roasts, steak and kidney pie, toad-in-the-hole and fish pie, what they enjoyed the most were large helpings of trifle, sponge pud, Bakewell tart, Queen of Puddings, egg custard, and rice pudding – all of them with lashings of Bird’s Custard.
Traditionally in England we have always been particularly good at puddings. Various versions have been available to everyone since sugar became cheaper in the C17th and C18th centuries. England has always had plenty of different fruits, and we have flour, milk, fat and eggs. The many combinations we have devised celebrate these ingredients, such as fruity summer pudding, and – to keep the cold at bay – fruit pies and crumbles. Thrift plays a part: money-saving cooks fill people up cheaply with suet puds, and use up leftovers in skilful concoctions such as bread and butter pudding or treacle tart. No surprise then, that today there are pudding clubs all over England, such as the one in the Assembly Rooms in Norwich.
Currently there is a glut of retro cookery programmes on the TV, demonstrating the familiar and neglected local favourites, such as rabbit stew, as well as a revival in popularity of vintage recipes ranging from the home-grown dishes of Mary Berry, Marguerite Patten and Fanny Craddock, to those of the Mediterranean-inspired Elizabeth David and the American Julia Childs.
Although many of the dishes still sound and are tasty, I have also come across a ghastly and garish selection, mainly quivering in aspic and gelatine, including jellied gazpacho, apple and tomato moulds, ham or chicken in aspic, and a fiesta tart – a version of quiche decorated with prawn heads, complete with beady black eyes and whiskers.
Why is there such a retro-revival at the moment? Words that spring to mind are recession, comfort and nostalgia. We don’t even have to make the old-fashioned dishes – as a nation we may love watching cookery programmes but surveys tell us that viewers do just this – view not create. Instead supermarkets manufacture their own versions of old favourites. Compared with the past, they are now easy to buy ready-made and can work out cheaper, as anyone who has made a booze-soaked Christmas cake knows. Today’s generations tend to be more sedentary than previous ones, and often more health-conscious. Yet many of us have a weakness for filling, stodgy, easy-to-eat food, while being all too well aware that plates of balsamic-glazed rocket and raw fish are a whole lot healthier for our hearts and waistlines.
Bad Blood, Lorna Sage’s autobiography, describes growing up in the 50s and early 60s, what a rotten cook her mother was, and how — like mine —she was delighted when fish fingers, Angel Delight and Arctic Roll hit the supermarket shelves. What transports me back in time is tinned fruit with evaporated milk, Bovril gravy, macaroni cheese, jam roly-poly (with so little jam you had to search hard for it), chicken, pigeon or rabbit stew with pearl barley (aka ‘little bottoms’) and – a Big Treat – the rustle of purple paper covering a big bar of Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut which Dad would produce with a flourish on Saturday evening as we sat round the black-and-white TV watching ‘Dixon of Dock Green’.
How about you? What are your foodie memories?
Guest blog by Pandora, a Norfolk ‘foodie’.