Monday, February 05, 2007

Trips down memory lane

"Whilst families tend to save mementoes from special occasions, it struck me that little was being done to keep the everyday material. When the thousands of pieces of this social history are assembled into some giant jigsaw, the result illustrates the remarkable journey we all come through" Robert Opie.

In the middle of the 19th century most of the products produced were sent in bulk to grocery stores which would sell them on to customers by weight, for example dried fruits, leaf tea or sugar. The packaging revolution from the Victorian era changed all that and manufacturers were able to take charge of their brand identity.

Yesterday, we visited Robert Opie's Museum of Brands Packaging and Advertising in Notting Hill, dedicated to the world of marketing and showcasing more than 200 years of consumerism through more than 10,000 food, cleaning and leisure products. A dimly lit time tunnel took us from the Victorian era, the beginnings of radio and television, the war, the Swinging 60s, the glam and punk 70s, the glitzy 80s, right up to current day.

All of it impressed, but I was particularly fascinated by how the colour and font identity of products such as Colmans mustard, Johnsons baby powder and Cadburys chocolate changed little over the decades; how established brands stripped their packaging down to the bare essentials during the rationing years; how visual identity moved from illustrations to photography during the 50s; and how products got larger and larger as the years went on, especially during the 70s.

I was excited seeing products from my own 70s and 80s childhood - packaging for Findus frozen pancakes, Walls ice cream, Birds Eye strawberry mousses in little plastic tubs, Monster Munch and Disco's and Outer Spacers crisps, Luv ice lollies, Snack Pots of dried curry and rice with chicken that you reconstituted with water, the Ker Plunk game, a Paddington Bear teddy and numerous Corgi metal car models.

I took another trip down memory lane to visit my very first home in nearby Ladbroke Grove, though as this was the house my parents brought me to soon after I was born I actually have no memories of the place! My parents rented a flat in the house. Next to them was another young West Bengali couple and below them was an English widow.

A few years before, my father had hunted high and low for a landlady or landlord to not say "Sorry, no coloureds, no blacks" when he knocked on their door. Spurred on by a friendly Jewish newsagent he pressed on and eventually found a friendly house on Ladbroke Grove Road with a landlady who said, "Yes you can stay so long as you don't cook any curries in your room!" A few years later, when he left for married life, his landlady begged him to recommend her room to another young professional Indian. Though a decade before, the area became renowned for race riots, my mother tells me that by the time my parents moved there racial tension had quietened down and she herself received no ill treatment.

While we were in the area, I also picked up a trio of Bengali cooking books from Books For Cooks bookshop - one simply a recipe book (Bangla Ranna: An Introduction to Bengali Cuisine by S. Banerjee) and two others cooking memoirs from West and East Bengal by Chitrita Banerji. They feature recipes such as aloo posto (potatoes with poppy seeds), chingri macher shalmi (prawns with tamarind) and aam shole (fish with green mango).

Today, we popped into our local Indian supermarket on Turnpike Lane and bought bitter gourds, patola (photo above) and dried lentil vadies so I can make M his first authentic Bengali dish this week: shukto or vegetables with bitter gourds, mustard and poppy seeds.

An abundance of river fish, seafood, mustard seeds, lentils, rice, vegetables, and bitter and sweet tastes characterise the food of the wet, fertile Bengal region. In less than four weeks, we'll be honeymooning in India where we will be eating Bengali food cooked by various members of my extended family all day long for two weeks. I am so hungry!

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