The public froth that was whipped up a few years ago when Heinz announced it was going to discontinue producing its Salad Cream showed that the British still retain an unshakable affection for certain heritage food brands - enough in that case to get the decision reversed. It's not as though there isn't more competition out there than ever. As Homer Simpson rapturously says as he walks into the local megamarket, 'They have so many things! And so many different things of things!'
Anybody's list of the nation's favourites (not necessarily the biggest sellers, but the ones we feel fondest about) usually includes: Heinz baked beans, HP Sauce, Colman's English Mustard, Hellman's Mayonnaise, Branston Pickle, Frank Cooper's Oxford Marmalade, Lea & Perrin's Worcestershire Sauce, Kellogg's Cornflakes, Cadbury's Dairy Milk, Walkers Crisps, Polo Mints, and of course Satan's goop itself, Marmite.
These are mostly not British brands any longer, and in some cases never were, but they have become part of the nation's psyche to an extent that many shoppers won't entertain rival or own-brand products, even where they are cheaper (and even where they may well have been made by the original brand). They are the products that online retailers sell to homesick Brits living overseas, a reminder that in every sun-kissed foreign field, there is a rain-soaked corner that is forever Britain.
Other nations find these preferences rather fascinating. An American website explains to its visitors in anthropological terms that Brits have a peculiar attachment to products like Birds Custard Powder, which (who knew?) bears little resemblance to real French crème anglaise, and Oxo cubes, which we are told no self-respecting chef would give kitchen space to. (This from the nation that invented aerosol cheese.)
And here is the point about many of the favoured brands. They are nearly all guilty-pleasure items, or products that are pale imitations of the real thing. Cornstarch is an essential building-block in many of them. Our chocolate is mostly vegetable fat. We actually eat spreadable yeast. We know how to make proper crème anglaise, but look, the clue is in the name. It's anglaise. We invented it. So if we want to use an instant powder for quickness, we will do. And we won't even ask permission.
The other thing that strikes me about these lists is how many of the products are relishes or condiments or things to spread on toast. They are historically what we added to our basic food to make it taste of something stronger, whether salty, sweet or just pungently weird. Hot crisp toast is the ultimate comfort food, but even more so if its blandness is offset by being slathered with something more than just butter.
Remember, these are only the brands that we will admit to loving. There are others of more recent vintage whose names people dare not speak in surveys. Any votes for Pot Noodle? Or Peperami sticks? Krispy Kreme doughnuts? What other food brands could you not bear to live without?
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