WHAT'S for dinner tonight? How about scampi and chips, or a Fray Bentos pie, with fish fingers for the children and an Arctic Roll with Bird's custard for afters? If that sounds like the sort of menu you thought had been consigned to the dustbin back in the 1970s, then think again: the retro food trend has arrived. Dishes that last graced our plates when Boney M topped the charts and David Cameron was still in short trousers are once more making their way on to dinner tables. Believe it
From scampi and cheesecake to Vimto, and Bisto, foodstuffs that many of us in our thirties and forties haven't eaten since childhood are experiencing a boom in our supermarkets. Both Birds Eye and Lyons Maid have recently relaunched the Arctic Roll, while Walkers has brought back the originals of the iconic snack Monster Munch, complete with 1970s packaging. Asda is reporting a year-on-year rise of 41 per cent in sales of Fray Bentos pies, a 26 per cent hike in sales of Bird's custard, a 20 per cent rise for Bisto and an 18 per cent rise in sales of Birds Eye fish fingers. Research group Mintel reports that frozen dessert consumption grew by 7 per cent, year on year – the biggest growth of all the frozen-food sectors.
"We're seeing a huge surge in nostalgic brands as people hark back to their childhood in a bid to get them through the recession," says an Asda spokeswoman.
"Nostalgia is in and we are seeing the biggest growth in well-known and trusted brands. Customers are also reverting to traditional favourites, such as Heinz Baked Beans and beans with mini sausages."
Marks & Spencer will this week launch a raspberry jam sandwich for 79p in its lunchtime range. According to its "sandwich specialist", Katy Patino, the jam butty is the "ultimate comfort food at an unbeatable price". Even upscale supermarket Waitrose has got in on the act, reporting scampi sales up by 80 per cent over the past year, while cheesecake – the height of dinner-party sophistication 30 years ago – has seen a sales increase of 74 per cent. The store even claims to be laying in extra stock of the ingredients for retro recipes such as cheese-and-pineapple sticks, beef stroganoff and Black Forest gteau, so we can all throw an Abigail's Party-style dinner.
Restaurants too are bringing back the sort of hearty comfort food enjoyed in the 1970s. Dishes such as chicken Kiev, prawn cocktail and steak-and-kidney pie are appearing on menus in even the most high-class establishments, and Gordon Ramsay recently devoted one of his Cookalong Live shows to preparing prawn cocktail, Steak Diane and mandarin cheesecake.
"I think there's an element of trying to connect your senses and your nostalgia with food," says Jeff Bland, Michelin-starred chef at Number One in Edinburgh's Balmoral hotel.
He suggests there may be something Proustian about it. "If you ate an Arctic Roll on a beautiful summer's day in 1973 you'll always remember it as being something more special than a bit of sponge, jam and cheap vanilla ice-cream," he says. "There is a real attempt at the moment to try and connect people with their past, to make them think of food they loved when they were growing up."
It is also, in part, a reaction to the recession. Neil Nugent, executive chef for Waitrose, believes what we eat is reflected in what is happening on the stock market. "It is a popular theory that hemlines reflect the economy," he says, "but what has not been acknowledged until now is that our eating habits subliminally mirror the fiscal way of the world, too."
Bland agrees. "When things are going well in the world, people are quite happy to buy mangoes and papayas from M&S and ignore the expensive price tag, but right now people have to adjust (to the downturn]. There will still be a segment of society that continues to buy premium products, but things are definitely on the change. Many are going back to making rice pudding, having cheap porridge for breakfast and sausage and mash for tea."
The taste for retro products also seems to be about comforting ourselves when the frozen chips are down. John Quigley, who was once personal chef to rock star Bryan Adams and now runs the Red Onion Bistro in Glasgow, says food is often the first thing we turn to in times of crisis.
"There is a real element of the warm, safe feeling that many of us seek when we're in trouble," he says. "A lot of people are in a bad way right now and this kind of food takes them to a nice place. Last week I had a customer in who ordered a chicken pie, and he said eating it had made it the happiest day of his week. He's in property, he's miserable, but he has a chicken pie and it helps him."
But we can't all afford to console ourselves with a beautiful restaurant meal, and although pre-packaged convenience foods are cheap, they still come at a price. "It's fine to reintroduce these retro foods and smarten up the nutritional input, by reducing the amount of salt, for example," says nutritionist Carina Norris. "But if it's just homing in on people's desire to go back to the olden days, that could be very dangerous nutritionally. I think it's a case of going into the shops with your eyes open and looking at the ingredients lists of these products."
Monster Munch, for example, is now made with healthier Sunseed oil, but is sold in larger bags than before, while Birds Eye's Arctic Roll contains four additives with E numbers and provides 207 calories per slice. On the other hand, Birds Eye Omega-3 Fish Fingers are low in saturated fat and contain omega-3 oils (like all fish), which is at least good for our cholesterol levels.
"The 1970s more or less saw the beginning of highly coloured, processed food," says Norris. "There's much more awareness now of healthy eating; we're far more likely to grill fish fingers rather than fry them, let's say, but I think the gradual supersizing of portions, compared to the portions we ate in the 1970s, is a problem."
Paul Freathy, professor of retail studies at Stirling University, also warns that while we may get hung up on the cosy nostalgia, the relaunching of these brands is, ultimately, a marketing strategy.
"Brands endure and it often takes a long time for them to get into our psyche, so from a marketing point of view it's an opportunity to rekindle those interests from the past," he says.
"People do move on, but they also tend to look back on these old food brands through rose-tinted spectacles. In the same way we get dewy-eyed about Bill and Ben on TV, we'll think fondly of Black Forest gteau. In marketing terms, that's a green light to launch a range of products that will rekindle certain memories."
But there may be another element to our recent embrace of more homespun foods, which has more to do with our attitude towards food miles and carbon footprints.
Quigley says: "There was a time during the 1980s and 1990s when we discovered different cuisines; we travelled, we tried different things, we discovered wonderful Thai food and other exotic ingredients. But now we're realising that maybe it's not such a good idea to be eating food that has travelled half way across the world. We're coming back to food that is 'natural' to us."
Bland – who says he regularly receives requests for prawn cocktail in his fine dining restaurant – predicts even more of a change in the sort of fare we are eating as the recession continues to bite. But, he says, there is still a way of putting your own spin on things: "I think the ideal is to try and use less costly ingredients, mixed with a few more expensive ones. That way you're not going to break the bank, but you'll still get a decent meal."
THE SPAM WE LIKE
OF ALL the accusations you can hurl at Spam, failing to stand the test of time is not one of them.
Created in the US in 1936 by Jay C Hormel, son of George A Hormel who founded Hormel Foods (it still makes it), the wobbly pink luncheon meat first came to the UK following the passing of the Lend-Lease Act by the US government in 1941, which provided aid to the allied forces in Britain and Russia during the Second World War and brightened up the ration diet at a time when fresh meat was woefully scarce.
Made of pork and ham and boasting an incredibly long shelf life, it became an instant British favourite, added to everything from casseroles to fry-ups. These days it's still going strong, and has enjoyed a new lease of life lately with the recent launches of frozen Spam fritters and pre-sliced packs – perfect for your credit-crunch lunch box.
It may have been a wartime staple but, just to show us how well it can be adapted for 21st-century palates, the makers have come up with a recipe for Spam "sushi", the perfect fusion of old and new culinary ideals … perhaps.
Cooked white rice for 2 people (seasoned with dried seaweed and toasted sesame seeds, if desired)
2 slices Spam
1 tbsp sweet ginger sesame sauce
1 nori (dried seaweed sheet)
1. In a large pan, gently fry the Spam until lightly browned and crisp
2. Place half of the rice into a Musubi press or small tin can.
3. Place the Spam on the rice and drizzle the sauce over it.
4. Top with the remaining rice and press down.
5. Remove Spam and rice from Musubi press or can.
6. Place inside a sheet of nori (shiny side down) and wrap.
7. Cut each Musubi in half.
8. Slice each half diagonally in half again.
9. Serve immediately.