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Cooking with nostalgia: the comeback of traditional British foods of yesteryear

woman with short hair smiling
5 min read
AUTHOR: Carol Wilson
Mother Serving Dinner to Her Family

The rising price of food means we’re all looking for ways to reduce our costs. As the credit crunch bites, it seems we’ve all developed a yearning for British foods from times past. Sales of traditional foods such as custard powder and jelly are booming. Home baking too has enjoyed a revival as a result of recent lockdowns due to the coronavirus pandemic, and sales of baking ingredients such as flour and dried fruits have soared. In fact supermarkets ran out of flour and yeast during lockdown, such was the demand.

With restaurants and takeaways closed, home cooking from scratch also came to the fore with pasta bakes, pizzas, soups, warming stews, nostalgic desserts and puddings appearing on lockdown home-cooking menus. Social media sites Facebook and Instagram motivated many people to try out traditional recipes, with Yorkshire pudding being one of the most popular. These old fashioned time-honoured dishes may be familiar to an older generation, but are novel and unusual for many of the under thirties.

Staying at home meant we all had more time to fill and we turned to baking to make treats for family, neighbours and key workers. Internet recipe searches for comforting foods of yesteryear rocketed. The most searched for recipes were for desserts, biscuits and cakes – especially banana bread, which became the most searched for recipe during the lockdown. Other popular recipe searches included the quintessentially English Victoria sandwich cake, pineapple upside down cake, banoffee pie, bread and butter pudding, cheesecake, brownies and flapjacks. Social media feeds have been packed with images of breads, biscuits and cakes including the ever popular, aforementioned banana bread, which is simple to make and makes good use of overripe bananas left in the fruit bowl. More people tried making bread for the first time, including sourdough, despite the fact it’s trickier to make than simple white bread.

People are turning their backs on expensive convenience foods and returning to the kitchen, with traditional dishes and simple meals from basic ingredients making a welcome return as we look to save money. Cutting back on luxuries, doesn’t have to mean forfeiting tasty food and a balanced diet.

Our much loved meals from childhood top the list of our favourite comfort foods. There’s been a huge surge in popular foods of yesteryear with sales of tinned fruit, corned beef, ham and Spam almost doubling, and sales of tinned fish soared too. Old favourites such as shepherd’s pie, sausage and mash, fruit crumbles and bread and butter pudding all made a comeback – a taste of the culinary pleasures of the past, with the added bonus that any dish prepared at home costs a lot less than buying it ready made in a shop or restaurant.

The eating habits of the nation are changing as we look for low cost tasty dishes. People are thinking about the way their parents and grandparents cooked to create mouthwatering meals. Their thrift and know-how in the kitchen are coming back into fashion as times get harder financially. There’s also another advantage to homemade recipes: they taste better and are healthier as they don’t include preservatives or chemicals that many ready-made foods contain to ensure their long shelf life.

Supermarkets have been quick to respond to customers’ requirements with the introduction of a range of neglected cuts of meat, featuring cheaper options such as pork belly, stewing beef and liver rather than more expensive steaks and chops.

Many brands have changed their packaging and marketing, evoking heritage and nostalgia, harking back to bygone times to appeal to our desire for happy memories of the past. Some brands have also reintroduced old favourites which were discontinued for many years, such as Arctic roll (vanilla ice-cream rippled and coated with raspberry flavoured sauce wrapped in sponge cake).

Why do certain foods have such an attraction? Research shows connections between our brain and how we recognise and remember some foods that our mothers or grannies cooked. The hippocampus, located in our brain, influences this connection and plays a key role in memory, particularly long-term memories. It also has strong links with parts of our brain related to emotions and smells which are closely connected to our personal experiences with food. Familiar foods and flavours from times past take us back to a happier period in our lives, cheer us up, and help remind us of less difficult moments.

This year we celebrate the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee over a four day Bank Holiday from 2-5 June, with nationwide old fashioned 50s themed street parties, so there’ll be lots of retro baking of classic cakes and desserts of the time, such as the pink and yellow Battenberg cake, fairy cakes and Eton mess for afternoon teas and picnics in the UK. Coronation chicken (cold chicken, coated in a creamy curried mayonnaise sauce with apricot puree, created in 1953 for the coronation banquet) is sure to feature too, with lots of current internet recipe searches.

When the present looks uncertain, nothing beats the reassurance and consolation of an old favourite.


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