Proustian pear drops

It seems there’s a bit of a surge in the market at the moment for nostalgic confectionery. According to a recent piece in this paper, stores “specialising in the sweets of yesteryear report annual growth of about 20 per cent”. This is no childish whim, either; grown-up investment companies are showing interest in hitherto neglected sweetie brands. It looks as if they’re buying like kids in a sweetshop.

For a while now it’s been something of a sneaky secret shared between stand-up comics and columnists of the “here’s a funny thing I thought the other day” school: if you want a guaranteed reaction from a British audience, mention some form of biscuit, snack or confectionery popular any time from 1965 to around 1979.

It always draws a giggle, a happy frisson of nostalgic recognition or, at worst, an ironic nod of hipster appreciation. Spangles! Prawn Cocktail flavour Skips! See, you’re doing it right now.

There are more refined exponents of the art, of course. National treasure Victoria Wood has built a substantial comedy career out of a sort of notional carrier bag featuring fondant fancies, a full assortment of non-premium biscuits (and a rolled up copy of Woman’s Weekly). The acknowledged master of the “shopping list” genre, Alan Bennett, can wring an entire monologue out of the quotidian cream cracker. There’s clearly something there, something emotional and close to our national heart, but why are we so fascinated by these rather unappetising products?

Heston Blumenthal wraps up the culinary thrill-ride of dinner at the Fat Duck with a “bag of sweets” – the sort of bag we all clutched as kids, filled with a selection of carefully crafted confectionery. But this is no mere hipster irony; these are brilliant, witty evocations of the Proustian tastes of a British childhood. Our foremost kitchen alchemist doesn’t mess about. He understands the power in those smells, tastes and sensations.

If I were French I’d remember my mother’s choucroute or the regional cheese I grew up on with a lump in my throat. If I were Jewish, I’d shed soft tears over anything my grandmother cooked from the Old Country. If, God help me, I were Italian, I’d be prepared to stab a man in the throat for serving a hare ragu with a shape of pasta that differed in any respect from that my family had served for eight generations.

But I’m British. When I was going through my formative years, our post-rationing food culture was frankly broken. There were no regional hotpots or seasonal fruit desserts, just a ceaseless, shapeless procession of meat, chicken or fish with veg or salad. Sunday roast was a conceptually moveable feast. A few brave mothers experimented with exotica such as lasagne or chicken “curry” – but there was nothing unique to us, nothing distinctive on the young palate, no dish behind which we could unite.

What we did have though – all the generations of us that shared a playground in those Wonder Years – was a vaguely disapproved-of goodie-bag of cheap sweets and snacks, all of them marked out by their incredibly strong artificial flavours. Incidentally, many of these flavours – the hyper-banana, pear drop smell of isoamyl acetate, the rich butterscotch flavour of diacetyl, the compounds yielding ersatz vanilla, pineapple, grape, cinnamon, wintergreen and ethyl propionate with its non-specific “fruity” redolence – were developed as a bonus by chemical companies researching during the second world war.

It may sound like an odd idea, but I’m firmly convinced that, like ducklings attaching their affections to the first thing they see when they hatch, we latched on to those highly processed luxury treats in the absence of anything else. And so Butterscotch Angel Delight is our tiramisu, Frazzles our cassoulet, Wagon Wheels our ancestor’s bagels. Where others pine for the crispness and yeasty fug of a fresh baguette we cleave with equal emotion to a packet of pickled onion Monster Munch.

I’ll admit I’m the tiniest bit jealous of our European cousins; it must be nice to have a direct cultural link to a peasant culinary past, but I find myself increasingly comfortable with what we’ve got.

Though our nostalgia might at first appear a little less “authentic”, I don’t believe it is any less powerful an emotion for having as its subject products that were the result of commercial R&D and post-conflict consumer boom.

Tim Hayward is editor of Fire & Knives,

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