Foods we loved but had almost forgotten: Stork, Princes Beef Paste and Fray Bentos pies

Nostalgic shopping trip revealed plenty of old-school favourites nestled in among sriracha sauce, tofu and oat milk

If you can’t read the words “Give ‘em a lift with Cookeen” or “For Mash get Smash” without the associated jingles playing in your head, you’ll probably be familiar with many of the items in the rather unusual shopping basket assembled here. The news that supermarket chain Tesco is considering taking cornflour off its shelves in the UK due to lack of demand has prompted a rash of panic buying, and poses the question: “what’s next to go?”

With increasing amounts of “free-from”, and vegan and vegetarian food products jostling for shelf space, supermarkets are having to review their product lines and cull those that are not in demand. But a trawl of three large stores in Dublin this week revealed that there are still plenty of old-school favourites nestled in among the sriracha sauce, tofu and oat milk.

For a nostalgic bake, it’s got to be Stork, the non-dairy block (for pastry and biscuits), and tub (for cakes and muffins), promising “Better baking since 1920″. A colleague recently embarked on a baking binge with this trying to recapture the elusive taste of her childhood. Her verdict? “Maybe we don’t need all that butter after all.”

Chef and food writer Zack Gallagher agrees. “When I was a wee boy working in the bakery, the baker used shortening fat for texture and 20 per cent butter for taste.” In food academic Dr John D Mulcahy’s house, Christmas cake is always made with Stork from a recipe booklet that was distributed by the manufacturer, handed down by his granny. “I am loath to admit it but that’s the way Christmas cake has tasted since I was a child (60+ years).”

READ MORE
10 years of Irish Times Food Month

Cookeen, which is made in the UK, proved to be elusive in this back-to-the-past shopping expedition. But there were plenty of similar products, including SuperValu’s own brand Cooking Fat, made with the rather gruesome sounding “animal oil (beef)”, “for fine pastry and cooking”, according to the wrapper. Just don’t make the mistake of substituting Frytex, made in Cork from beef dripping, and intended to imbue fried foods with enhanced flavour. That, too, has its fans, including the family of former Chapter One head chef Eric Matthews. “My granny once gave out to me for frying my grandad’s steak in butter then proceeded to cook everything in Frytex.”

Hoping to cling on to their supermarket listings and shelf space has forced some manufacturers of grocery products of a certain vintage to move with the times. Paxo dried stuffing now comes in a gluten-free variety as well as the original sage and onion. Atora suet, used for dumplings, pastry, and popping up soon in Christmas mincemeat, is now available in a vegetarian version as well as the original beef. Angel Delight, the powder-to-mousse miracle dessert made by Bird’s that has been around since 1967, comes in a version without artificial colours and preservatives and no added sugar.

Bird’s famous custard in powder form though now available ready-made in tins, tubs and cartons, was invented by Alfred Bird in 1837 at his chemist shop in Birmingham and made for his wife, who was allergic to eggs, a traditional custard ingredient. It is a hero product that is in no danger of being pushed off the shelf. But can the same be said for Bird’s Dream Topping, which has the dubious distinction of having “Fully Hydrogenated Palm Oil” as its principal ingredient?

A vintage grocery product that is enjoying something of a revival is Heinz Original Sandwich Spread. The tangy mixture of salad cream and relish contains 35 per cent vegetables – cabbage, carrots, gherkins and onions – and lashed on top of soft white bread and a thick layer of butter, it’s a taste of my own childhood. “So delicious,” a friend says in guilty agreement.

It also gets the seal of approval from health and fitness advocate and Operation Transformation leader Killian Byrne. “My mother batch made school sandwiches. Two versions, tongue and sandwich spread. She’d make hundreds, freeze them on trays and then we’d pry them off every morning and they’d be defrosted by the time we had to eat them.”

Remember the vague nothingness of the taste of another, once popular, sandwich spread? You might be surprised that it’s still on sale, and stocked by Dunnes Stores. You’ll find it improbably nestled alongside the upmarket Ballymaloe mayo (in the Cornelscourt branch). Strangely, the beef paste also contains chicken – 35 per cent beef and 33 per cent chicken. Whether the Princes Chicken Paste also contains beef, remains to be discovered, as I did not purchase that one.

The baking aisle is a good place to start if you’re looking for grocery products that are brimming over with nostalgia. You’ll find that while Lyle’s Golden Syrup has been decanted into an easy-pour squeezy bottle, Lyle’s black treacle is still sold in the familiar red, gold and black tin. It comes with an arresting use-by-date warning:

“Cans beyond this date must be discarded as pressure may have built up in storage.” A black treacle explosion doesn’t bear thinking about.

Wonderbar, the glue to millions of cake sale and birthday party Rice Krispie buns, is a divisive ingredient. Some swear by it, while others note that there is a reason it’s described as “chocolate flavour” rather than chocolate. But this decades-old, cost-effective pantry staple has been joined by another cooking chocolate made by the same manufacturer, and this one is real chocolate. Home Cook’s 72 per cent cocoa Belgian chocolate cake covering was voted best of 12 chocolate bars for cooking, beating among others Green & Blacks and Lindt.

A much loved British invention Fray Bentos pies, the ones that come in a tin, have also been reinvented to stay relevant to consumers. The range now includes an all-day breakfast pie, a chicken curry pie, and a vegan steak and kidney bean pie. I found three on sale in Tesco (Merrion Centre), with the traditional steak and kidney sitting alongside cheese and onion, and “just chicken”. Interestingly, they were displayed alongside a vast array of instant noodles – and yes, the original Pot Noodle was strongly represented, including the original curry flavour.

Also making it into my nostalgic nosh shopping basket was a packet of dried marrowfat peas – complete with their mysterious “soaking tablet”. There was no Smash to be found, but a Knorr version of the just add water mashed potato was available. Chef Jess Murphy instructed me to pick up a pot of Aromat, the all-purpose seasoning she is fiercely loyal to.

Oxo cubes, the precursor to the stockpot jelly, couldn’t be left behind, likewise the oxtail soup and bisto. There was a block of Calvita cheese too – all that stood between me and near starvation at a convent boarding school in the early 1980s. And a bottle of Sarsons, from when vinegar meant malt, not Modena.

Now, what’s for dinner?