Angel of mercy, angel delight,
Give me my reward in heaven tonight.
– Dire Straits, 'Angel of Mercy'.
When you die and go to heaven, you might wonder what culinary delights await you in that celestial paradise. Despite its name, we can be fairly certain that Angel Delight is unlikely to be among them. This British packet-mix mousse dessert has never been the most fashionable of brands, and these days it has been largely consigned to the scrapheap of nostalgic 1970s fare, along with the likes of Cadbury's Smash, Top Deck Lager and Lime, and the Fray Bentos Steak and Kidney Pie.
Yet we loved it, admit it. What child of that decade could forget the experience of whipping up an Angel Delight dessert? First, you rummage around in the cupboards for a jug, then measure out the milk (full-fat of course). You rip open the waxed paper sachet, sending a choking cloud of fine, sweet-smelling dust throughout the kitchen1. Beat the powder into the milk with an egg whisk — marvel how the mixture turns a garish colour, despite both milk and powder being white. Finally, put it in the fridge to set for a few minutes, before serving the thick gloop into bowls.
Study the ingredients of this magic potion and you will find it is made of some very unnatural things: modified starch, hydrogenated vegetable oil, Propylene Glycol Monostearate and Sodium Pyrophosphate to name but a few. It was plainly cooked up by some mad scientist, and this particular one was descended from the pioneer of powdered desserts, Alfred Bird.
Bird was one of those Victorians who dabbled in many of the new scientific advances of the 19th Century. Trained as a druggist, he opened an 'experimental chemist' shop in Birmingham, yet in his spare time investigated physics, meteorology, electricity, and magnetism. He invented some novel items, including that device which allows a ball to be balanced upon a jet of water (later widely adopted by fairground shooting galleries). He also developed the glass harmonica, which he once played by royal command to Queen Victoria. His greatest invention, however, was inspired by the needs of his wife.
Elizabeth Bird loved her cakes and desserts, but she just couldn't digest them; her dyspepsia was caused by an allergy to eggs and an intolerance of live yeast. Alfred conducted extensive research into finding a yeast substitute, and in 1843 came up with baking powder, which he marketed as 'Bird's Fermenting Powder'. He followed this up with what would become his most famous and long-lasting product: Bird's Custard Powder.
Following Bird's death in 1878, his son Alfred Frederick Bird2 took over the family firm, adding further products, including powdered blancmange, powdered egg and jellies. He was a skilled marketer, commissioning the artistic talents of TB Browne, whose iconic advertisements also promoted Cadbury's chocolate and Pears soap. Alfred jr also inherited a little of his father's eccentricity: on one occasion he rode a tricycle from Land's End to John O'Groats, setting a record time which still stands today.
Further generations of Birds managed the company until 1947, when it was sold to General Foods. Yet, new products continued to appear, including Instant Whip in 1960, Dream Topping (1964) and Angel Delight (1967). Like Angel Delight, Instant Whip is a powder added to milk, yet the resulting dessert is lighter and more fluffy. Dream Topping is a powdered whipped cream substitute.
Angel Delight was also marketed heavily. The product was launched by Peter Davis, who would later go on to become a knighted captain of industry, managing the corporate giants Sainsbury's and Prudential3. The original slogan for the strawberry-flavoured variety was 'Tastes like strawberries and cream' — a debatable claim, as neither ingredient featured. Yet the brand caught the imagination, and, buoyed by a massive campaign of free sample giveaways, achieved sales of £2m in its first year.
The rest, as they say, is history. Angel Delight enjoyed two decades as Britain's most popular dessert, yet all good things must come to an end. In 1989, as sales declined, General Foods was assimilated into Kraft, then the second-largest food company in the world. In an attempt to revitalise the brands, the company launched ready-to-eat chiller cabinet versions of the dessert. Sales were disappointing, however, and Kraft eventually offloaded all Bird's brands to Premier Foods in 2004. Production moved from Kraft's coffee plant in Banbury, Oxfordshire to a factory in Knighton, Staffordshire. This former Cadbury plant, celebrating its centenary in 2011, originally made milk / chocolate crumb, then sent it down the Shropshire Union Canal to Bournville, to be made into Cadbury's Dairy Milk.
As of 2011, Bird's Custard, Angel Delight, Dream Topping and Trifle now share a home with other 1970s classic foodstuffs, including Marvel skimmed milk powder, Smash, Coffee Compliment, Typhoo QT, Lift lemon Tea, Kardomah Coffee and Cadbury's instant hot chocolates.
In recent years, Premier have reformulated the brand, removing many of the artificial sweeteners and flavourings, in an attempt to secure lucrative school-dinner contracts. At the time of writing, Angel Delight comes in five flavours: banana, butterscotch, chocolate, raspberry and strawberry, although lemon, peach and white chocolate flavours were available in the past.
Speaking of flavours, the one which has become the most iconic is the butterscotch. This sickly brown goo was surprisingly tasty, and the most versatile in the ways in which it could be served. It went, and indeed probably still goes, remarkably well with chopped-up Mars bars, although this treat would presumably be well off the Weightwatchers scale.
More typical is to serve it with tinned fruit, or with fan-shaped wafers, or with hundreds and thousands sprinkled on the top. Or indeed all three. One back-of-the-packet recipe from times gone past described the instant trifle: 'Serve Strawberry Angel Delight over slices of swiss roll and canned fruit, topped with swirls of Dream Topping'. Then, presumably, book yourself into a monastery for a week to reflect on what has become of your life.
Many people prefer to eat it unadorned. One famous fan is music mogul Simon Cowell, who, according to the UK tabloid press, is addicted to the stuff, even eating bowls of it in the back of his limo as he contemplated the popularity of X-Factor wannabes John and Edward 'Jedward' Grimes.
We'll finish, though, with a recipe for the most hardcore and unrepentant Angel Delight junkies: make up a chocolate Angel Delight with just less than the required amount of milk, but topped up with Baileys Irish Cream liqueur. (The milk/Baileys ratio you choose is strictly at your own risk — drink sensibly.) Crumble a Cadbury's Flake over the top. Book a nutritionist's appointment.