If you grew up in South Africa in the 1960s and 70s, you might well fall into a dead faint at the mention of tinned Koo peaches and Ideal Milk. This was the definitive pudding of my childhood: big, sweet, golden cling-peach halves swimming in nectar and doused with ice-cold evaporated milk, poured straight from the tin. Into a little scratched plastic bowl. Eaten, tummy-down, on the sun-baked floor of the stoep, or on the slasto (crazy-paving).
[Note: September 2013: A shortened version of this post was published as a column in the Sunday Times on Sunday 22 September. Click here to read it].
If you don't remember that, you will surely remember those pale wobbling jellies made from Ideal Milk, gelatine and tinned fruit.
This may sound to you like shudder-inducing, trashy food, in these days of seasonal, organic greens and carbon footprints and exhortations to live greenly. But it wasn't: it was just the best taste ever invented, along with Coca-Cola, Simba Salt-and-Vinegar Chips, Smarties, All-Gold Tomato Sauce, Zoo Biscuits and Eskimo Pies.
Canned, bottled and frozen foods have had a lot of bad press, which I think is an impertinence on the part of foodies and TV chefs. First, it's easy to shun preserved food if you have a fridge and electricity and live in a land of milk and honey. But for millions of poor folk in Africa - and elsewhere - a tin of food is an unimaginable luxury.
Righteous indignation aside, there is another reason why preserved foods deserve a little respek.
Turn your nose up at a tin of soup, okay, but don't overlook the fact that the ancient technology of preserving surplus food - starting with sun-drying, and moving on across the millennia to salting, pressing, brining and pickling - is what allowed our ancestors to get sleek and healthy, live to a long age, and give birth to strong, big-brained children. Where would the Greeks and Romans be without olive oil? Or the nations around the Atlantic without salt cod? Or South African pioneers without biltong?
You might shun preservatives and additives and irradiation, but without your distant ancestors having had the savvy to preserve what they harvested for the lean months ahead, you probably wouldn't be here at all.
I'm not saying for a moment that preserved food is better or healthier or worthier in any way than fresh. But I chafe at the notion that eating anything that wasn't plucked, still beaded with dew, from your own garden, or from the organic farm next door, is an act of eco-terrorism.
In the characteristally sneering words of A.A. Gill, trashing Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's* greeniness: 'Growing your own vegetables is a bit like making your own fridge or whittling a car. Possible, but stupid.... The idea that ideal people should strive to live like 18th-century crofters is intellectual silage.'
Of course I don't like tinned pilchards, or canned Vienna sausages; I'm lucky enough to be able to afford good food that's fresh and tasty and not crawling with flies or seething with salmonella. But don't ask me to pour scorn on preserved foods.
There are some ingredients that, when tinned, have no ambitions to be anything like the fresh versions of themselves, but have a special and distinctive character of all of their own. They're not looking to be a substitute for the fresh thing. They're Tinned and Proud Of It.
Take, for example, solid tuna in oil, white asparagus cuts, chickpeas, tinned green and black olives, Italian plum tomatoes, salty little anchovies wrapped around capers, protein- and fibre-packed beans, and smooth apricot jam. And then there are the tinned South African fruits (the best of which are cling peaches, pears and guavas): perfect, blemish-free, delicious sweet nuggets that are ten times better tinned shortly after picking than delivered, bruised and mushy, to the local supermarket.
But back to Ideal Milk. This is a famous South African brand - and popular in several other African countries - that has a distinctive milky flavour that I can't describe to you, suffice to say that it tastes like mother's milk to me.
Evaporated milk is made by drawing off the water content of the milk, which enriches and slightly thickens it. When it's chilled - six hours in the fridge, or an hour and a half in a domestic freezer - it can be beaten to double its original volume into a thick, creamy swirl. It adds a smooth creaminess to soups, mashed potato and white sauce, makes wonderful jellies, fridge tarts, fudge and icecream, and coffee drunk around a camp fire just doesn't taste the same without it.
It's also a good substitute for cream, and the new lower-fat version (which has about half the fat of Ideal Milk) is good if you're watching calories.
There is only one suitable implement for opening a can of condensed or Ideal Milk - a tin puncher the likes of which I haven't seen in a shop since 1987. It has a sharp triangular tongue that punches a notch in the top of the tin; you need to make one hole on either side.
Try this lovely quick lemon sherbert: light as thistledown, and doesn't need to be stirred while it's freezing (unless you want a perfectly silken result). You can't use a small domestic ice-cream-maker for this, because the mixture is too fluffy.
1 tin (410g) ice-cold evaporated milk (it must be refrigerated overnight)
1 cup (250 ml) caster sugar
the grated rind of a lemon
juice of 1-2 lemons, to taste
Beat in the lemon rind and lemon juice. You might need to add more lemon juice, if you want a tart sherbert. Pour into a cold metal or plastic dish and freeze for a couple of hours, stirring now and then. Lovely with an amaretto biscuit.
Peach and Orange Mousse
Mild, peachy comfort food for invalids, children and grown-up children.
1 Tbsp (15 ml) powdered gelatine
3 Tbsp (45 ml) water
1 tin (410 g) yellow cling peaches (apricots are good too) and their juice
the finely grated zest and the juic of one fresh range
1 tin (400g net mass) ice-cold evaporated milk
Put the peaches, their juice, the orange juice and the orange zest into the goblet of a liquidiser or blender. and process to a fine purée. Stir in the dissolved gelatine. In a separate bowl, whip the evaporated milk until doubled in volume. Gently fold the puréed fruit mixture into the beaten milk. Pour into glasses or a rinsed jelly mould and refrigerate for 3 hours, or until set.
Note: Leaf gelatine is now available in South Africa, and I think it produces a nicer and better-tasting jelly. As a general rule, use two sheets of leaf gelatine to one teaspoon (5 ml) gelatine.
* I have no quibble with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall; he's one of the few TV cooks I really admire, least of all because he's sincere and practises what he preaches. And, of course, his 'River Cottage' series isn't aimed at Africa's hungry masses (although African subsistence farmers could certainly benefit from his expertise. How about it, Hugh?).