In Marcel Proust’s classic novel “In Search of Lost Time”, the reader is guided toward a passage in which the narrator dips a madeleine into a cup of lime-blossom tea. Taking a bite of his quintessentially French dessert acts as a sensory trigger of memories, resurrecting his childhood and instantly transporting him to his past: “No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me.”
While we may be far from old-world France, ‘Proust’s madeleine’ metaphor as a trigger for nostalgia is just as poignant as ever, with reinvented childhood classics popping up on menus throughout Sydney. In the inner-city borough of Surry Hills, a row of pink finger buns sits patiently inside glass casing, soon to be snapped up by early risers and first-in-best-dressed customers at Humble Bakery. It’s just one of many local cafes currently offering a curated selection of reimagined classic pastries, sweets and baked goods.
The brainchild of Ben Milgate, Elvis Abrahanowicz and Joseph Valore (also known for Porteño, Bastardo and Bodega x Wyno), Humble opened in late 2020 as Sydney dipped in and out of lockdown. It has a delightfully diverse menu, but it is Humble’s reboot of the classic finger bun that has emerged as most popular, attracting customers from all over Sydney. “When we were brainstorming what we were going to do here, the finger bun was brought up because it was the type of thing you either got in the canteen at school or when you were on a holiday or road trip with the family,” Milgate says. “We always try to recreate things people froth on and we always try to find the thing that’s going to make a comeback.”
It comes as no surprise, then, that after a year filled with pandemic stress and an overwhelming global news cycle, the quintessentially Australian finger bun is having a moment. “It definitely gets the most airplay on social media and people try to get in here early enough to get one,” Milgate says. With its pink cream cheese frosting, desiccated coconut and a separating slab of butter, the bun has found new life, but the question remains: does it have the power to transport customers to the past? Milgate believes so. “It takes you back to a time when life was a lot less stressful and easier going.”
As the world becomes increasingly uncertain, it seems we are yearning for that which we know to be dependable — even when it comes to food. “We have five senses for good reason, but it’s the sense of smell and taste that are the most associated with food, nostalgia and memory,” says Professor Johannes le Coutre of the Food & Health division at the School of Chemical Engineering within UNSW Sydney.
Unlike visual or auditory appeal, it’s the flavour (taste and smell) that’s particularly significant in consumption and nostalgia, as flavour is partially hardwired and partially imprinted into our systems. “It becomes rapidly complex, but in a way it’s something that carries real emotional value,” Professor le Coutre says. This emotional value, combined with a sense of communal fragility following the struggles of 2020, has in many ways helped establish a new appetite for retro food.
At Huxton’s in Bronte, the unassuming lamington has reached cult status thanks to a revamp of the original recipe. Created by head chef Lilly Fasan, each lamington is joined with a layer of seasonal mixed-berry jam, soaked in panacotta, dipped in milk chocolate and rolled in large coconut flakes. “It’s a labour of love, but they’re a bit of a work of art,” says owner Cameron Simpson.
Each month, Huxton’s sells 800 lamingtons on average, with customers driving up to two hours to source one of their favourite Australian treats. “We’ll get people ordering a lamington at 7am, but we also get people late at night looking for them too — in a way they’ve broken down the barriers of when it’s ‘appropriate’ to eat a lamington,” Simpson says. More than just a delicious any-time treat, the lamington comes weighed down with cultural nostalgia that Simpson believes plays a large role in its popularity at the cafe. “It reminds a lot of people of what their mum or grandmothers might have made them when they were little,” he says. “During times of uncertainty and even big events like Christmas people always switch back to brands and foods they know, love and trust. For us, there’s definitely been a swing towards tried and trusted items.”
In his latest book, “Australia: The Cookbook” (Phaidon), chef, cafe owner and author Ross Dobson’s ode to these nostalgic dishes shines more light on Australia’s longstanding love of sweets, pastries and cakes. “The book is largely about what people used to cook at home, but I did a lot of research as well as looking back through piles of recipes from my own mum,” Ross says. “There were all of these comforting things I found myself quite attached to.”
While Ross’ memories certainly play a part in his appreciation of these recipes, he also believes our desire to return to the comfort of foods from our past is closely linked with the lockdowns of the Covid-19 pandemic last year. “When Covid hit, people suddenly found themselves wanting to bake, and I think there was a shift to nostalgia and this idea of wanting to cook more at home in general,” he muses. “Yes, the supermarkets were running out of toilet paper, but they were also running out of basics like flour — the baking aisles were empty.”
With his Penrith cafe located below residential units, Dobson notes the customers he would cook takeaway dinners for were also bringing him their own homemade desserts and slices as gifts. “During Covid that kind of food became appropriate because it was something you could have for yourself or share with others over a cup of coffee or tea,” he says. “That’s comforting — that sweetness reminds you of better times and I think it just made people feel safe and secure while also allowing them to yearn for days gone by.”
Redefining comfort food as a way for people to cherish the past and enjoy a stronger sense of self-identity is further strengthened by the routine and ritual of communal cooking and dining. “It’s not just about building blocks, energy and calories — we know that people eat for longer and tend to eat more if they are around a table with others,” Professor le Coutre explains. “There are countless studies that show food has a social as well as a pleasure element.”
Someone who understands this intimately is Grant Lawn, owner of Bush in Redfern. “People come here looking for comfort,” he says. “We’re not highly priced or overtly cutting-edge or non-approachable. We see the same faces over and over again, especially throughout the pandemic.” Filled with contemporary takes on childhood classics, Bush’s menu is celebrated for its wide-ranging nod to days gone by. Its fairy bread & butter pudding touches on the experiences of childhood parties, while the wattleseed damper with honey butter stirs up memories of camping and cooking over the coals during family trips.
“When creating the menu, I really try to look at my own experiences as well as those of the general public,” Lawn says. Soon to be added to the menu is his take on the schoolyard at recess with the launch of Bush lunchboxes. “For the first one we’ll do celery-and-peanut salad, Vegemite-and-cheese damper, dill pickle and a chocolate brownie,” he divulges. “It’s like a little packed lunch from Mum.”
The renaissance of sentimental foods raises an interesting question: what will future generations look back to when considering their own experiences with food? “It’s exciting to see where this will go, because a lot of these items won’t ever go away, but other things will come up,” Professor le Coutre says. “The food we’re making now may be the nostalgic food of the future.” As time marches on, the goal for business owners such as Lawn continues to be providing customers with feel-good menu options. “If we can tap into nostalgia and put a smile on someone’s face, that really is powerful… It’s more than just the taste of the food.”