Food nostalgia

This week I betrayed my childhood, which is never a good idea.  In this case the cause was buying a particular brand of food that I remember keenly from my younger days, of which more in a moment.

Much as I dislike brand marketing, nobody can help the fact that your brain associates memories with particular foods, and while that included my mum’s home-made dishes, many learned during the lean days of the 40s and 50s, the convenience dinners of the day made appearances at regular intervals.  The strange thing is that many of these brands have become cash cows and are still alive and kicking in the 21st Century, albeit often in very difference ownership from the small-scale British manufacturers of yore.

I’ve written at length about some of these, notably the Fray Bentos pies and puddings my dad used to cook on Saturday mornings and serve to my sister and I with chips from the nearest chip shop.  The product is much the same as it ever was, which is to say that it bears just a passing resemblance to any home made steak and kidney pie you ever made, but nonetheless sold a steady volume of units with its canned steak smothered in gravy and topped with a canned equivalent of puff pastry.

Turns out that after years of being traded back and forth as companies grew, declined and merged, the brand is now owned by Baxters, which trades heavily on its history and Scottish roots, but is of course a food conglomerate in its own right – albeit not so anonymous as some.  FB steak puddings also featured in the excellent dramatisation of Toast, Nigel Slater‘s autobiography, which perhaps shows how engrained some of these names have become in British culture:

Oxo, Spam, Bovril, Marmite, Weetabix, Kelloggs cornflakes, Hovis bread, Mr Kipling cakes, Heinz beans, Penguin biscuits, Branston chutneys, HP sauce, Mars bars, Frank Cooper’s marmalade, and many more you can mention – of which more were mentioned in my previous blog about 70s food.

Fact is that these big food companies trade extensively off the nostalgia market for the very simple reason that selling the products in retro style wins a market from those who remember them originally, and in the hope that the parents whose memories entice them to buy will also introduce the products to a fresh young generation.

But back to the purchase in question.  This is a specialty of the Midlands (served with mushy peas and gravy), among other parts of the country, and still available freshly-made in butchers’ shops in some parts of the land, possibly under the soubriquet of “savoury ducks.”  I refer of course to faggots, which are meatball delicacy and not American homosexuals.  Like haggis, they are made extensively from offal products, as described on Wikipedia:

A faggot is traditionally made from pig’s heart, liver and fatty belly meat or bacon minced together, with herbs added for flavouring and sometimes bread crumbs.

Made well they are delicious, though my childhood memory is not of the recipe above but a rough approximation marketed as “Brains Faggots in gravy” – which thankfully did not contain another offal delicacy not available since the rise of CJD, namely brains.  The original Brains company is long gone, but the current owner of the brand has, for legal reasons, slightly renamed it.  Wikipedia again:

The best-known commercial brand is Mr Brain’s Faggots, a frozen food product available in Britain, which is made of liver and onions rolled into meatballs and served in a sauce. These differ significantly from traditional faggots, which have a coarser texture and contain much less water.

In short, as with all mass manufactured convenience food products, it bears little relation to the original, but did achieve a fan base in its own right – though with the decline of offal eating in British households this is not a product that would win out in other than the nostalgia market.

From childhood my memory is of a comfort food – and let’s face facts, the reason why nostalgia in tins or frozen packs sells so well is that it is comfort food, the stuff that makes us feel good about ourselves.  Why else would we buy it, or make stuff like chicken soup or macaroni cheese, for example, other than that it tastes good?

But I digress.  How did the flavour of Mr Brains pork faggots live up to my childhood memory?  Ingredients are thus:

West Country Sauce 62%: Water, Lard, Wheat Flour, Modified Maze Starch, Tomato Puree, Salt, Colour (E150c), Yeast Extract, Onion Flavour, Sugar, Herb & Spice extract.
Pork Faggots 38%: Water, Rusks, Rehydrated Pork Rinds, Pork Liver (15%), Pork (4%), Pork Fat, Wheat Flour, Salt, Sage, Spice Extract.


The meatballs are soft, spongy feel, lacking in the solid, meaty texture you might expect. To me the liver flavour is not that strong, but the overall “mouth feel” reveals a spice and herb aftertaste – though you do wonder what that decidedly non-traditional ingredient of “rehydrated pork rinds” is adding to the show.  Not surprising in cheap processed foods?  At least it’s not horse meat!

The gravy (or “West Country Sauce” as it is described on the packaging) on the other hand, is a tad greasy and overwhelming.  Tasty, to be sure, though that is the probably the result of added flavourings – which at least are probably not artificial as they once might have been.  A high proportion of lard does not fill you with confidence, but maybe that’s what you get with dishes designed to be as cheap as possible?

Stodgy and unfashionable, but passing the comfort food test?  For sure!  But maybe we are more choosy about what we put in our mouths nowadays, and equally less trusting of the manufacturers.  Once bitten, twice shy?

Definitely not in the health range, but a sad reminder of the products that used to contain viciously nasty ingredients that posed health threats for generations until science and government caught up with the fact.  There are no depths to which food manufacturers would not stoop if they could get away with it – try “ice cream” for example!

Our tastes may have changed, but the residual market for those wishing to relive the retro tastes of yesteryear shows no sign of abating.  In all honesty I can’t recommend Mr Brains Faggots now, possibly because I’ve changed significantly into a fully-fledged foodie  – so I certainly can recommend that you look out the specialty in your butcher, or even make them yourself.  That way you know what you’re eating.

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