You can get posh versions of everything from scotch eggs to marshmallow – and now you can buy a fancy version of the Heinz classic at Fortnum & Mason, for almost a fiver. Does gourmet always taste better?
First published in The Guardian
Another week, another basic food stuff being given the gourmet treatment. This week it’s the turn of baked beans, rebranded “Proper Beans” and sold fresh from the fridge in Fortnum & Masons from tomorrow. Not just Fortnum & Mason, apparently, they’ll also be stocked “at London’s finest provisioners”, says the Proper Beans’ website, complete with its own Crest. You can hear the husky M&S style voiceover in the product description: “Kentish cider, smoked pork collar, pumpkin and sundried tomato”. Naturally, all this luxury (or pomp) comes with a price. While Heinz baked beans currently retail round 50p for a 415g tin (12p/100g), Proper Beans costs a whopping £4.75 for a 330g pot (£1.44/100g). Which is quite a markup.
Heinz baked beans transcend all classes and ages. For generations, they’ve been a store cupboard staple but when they were first unloaded from a transatlantic ship, and stocked on Fortnum & Mason shelves in 1866, they were considered deeply exotic. ‘Canning’ was still a bit of a novelty for most people, and the American dish had, until then, been unsampled on our foreign shores.
The Heinz baked-bean recipe descended from the 17th-century recipe for Boston baked beans: a stout, slow-cooked dish – thick with molasses and flavoured with chunks of salted pork. As time went on though, Heinz’s resemblance faded more and more from the recipe of its forefathers. The treacle-thick sauce was thinned, and the sweetness was reduced to appeal more to the British palate. Finally, the pork was removed due to wartime rationing, and so the ubiquitous Heinz baked bean as we know them took shape.
Once tinned beans were “in” but this company are hoping their original recipe will usurp its successor again. The humble baked bean can now join the ranks of pumpernickel, polenta and droves of other peasant foods that have been rebranded. There seems to be no end to it – from burgers and scotch eggs to sweets and the now-ubiquitous popcorn brands that have edged Butterkist out. In an episode of Dragon’s Den last month, Harriot Pleydell-Bouverie sought £150,000 investment for her gourmet marshmallow company, Mallow & Marsh, which sells three individual marshmallows for £3; a whole bag of supermarket’s own-brand marshmallows retail at under £1. For me, Waitrose’s Seriously Creamy Madagascan Vanilla custard can’t beats Bird’s Eye, which brings up the question: Does gourmet always taste better?
Certainly Britain’s food writers and chefs don’t think so. Sometimes you can’t improve on simple basics. When it comes to selecting the bread for his perfect bacon sandwich, Nigel Slater wrinkles his nose at anything remotely artisanal or gourmet, insisting that a bacon sarnie is “better with factory-made ‘plastic bread’.” Despite a profound love for butter, Thane Prince confesses to enjoying a sponge cake made using Stork margarine. Simon Hopkinson’s guilty pleasure is found in a tin of marrowfat peas with a splash of malt vinegar, Nathan Outlaw likes his hotdogs from a tin, and Delia Smith has no qualms listing Ambrosia amongst the ingredients for a Christmas trifle. A lot of it is probably down to nostalgia – perhaps it’s the happy memories of childhood teas or snug winter evenings of beans on toast and fry ups that explain why Heinz beans are just so delicious to me. Are there some foods which have benefitted from “gastronomisation”, or do you pick cheap-and-cheerful every time?