Sales of after-dinner mints are falling – no wonder Britain is going to the dogs.Another nail has been driven into the coffin-shaped dinner-party table. Actually, I thought it had been dead and buried in the late Nineties, at some point between Peter Mandelson ordering guacamole in a fish and chip shop and Jamie Oliver telling us to “tear and share”.
But any pretence that it had a future has been killed off with the latest evidence: the catastrophic decline in after-dinner mints.
According to research in The Grocer trade magazine, sales of After Eights have fallen by 11 per cent over the last year, while Bendicks have slumped by 14 per cent. This is a body blow, delivered to the stomach of Middle England.
Apparently, we are too busy dipping Doritos into jars of radioactive salsa while watching the X Factor pantomime to indulge in such refinements as sipping coffee from a demitasse, nibbling on a mint and discussing the Midlothian question with the guest on our left.
And we wonder why Britain is in such a mess.
The sales figures are the latest evidence that formal dining has gone the way of the dodo. Earlier this year a survey suggested that 40 per cent of adults had ditched dinner parties because they were too expensive in an era of rising food prices and shrinking wage packets; and a quarter of respondents said the rigmarole was just too stressful.
Who has a cruet set any more? We’ve swapped napkins for a sheet of kitchen towel and you are more likely to find an iPad on the table than a decanter.
Many will pronounce this as a triumph, as final evidence that the snobbish era of Abigail’s Party is over, that we are now a “one nation Britain”, as at ease with itself as with a squeezy bottle of ketchup on the table.
Pish, I say.
It’s not that entertaining at home has died out. It’s just that we have become slobs about it. I blame David Cameron and his “kitchen suppers”.
Supermarket trading figures indicate that sales of upmarket ready meals have shot up, with M&S’s Dine-in-for-£10 one of the hits of the recession. Meanwhile, pubs and restaurants have struggled. People are saving money by abandoning an evening out for a microwaveable beef stroganoff on the sofa with friends. One department store even claimed that sales of knives were on the wane, as consumers opted to use forks only.
The resurgence of “event TV” – which first came to prominence during the oil-shocks of the Seventies – is also to blame. The flickering light of Mr Carson’s butler’s pantry, or the glitter ball of Strictly, has replaced a dining table candelabra.
One of the booming areas for chocolate is “share bags”, big sacks of confectionery that you used to find only on sale in the cinema, but now a must-have when friends are around to watch Downton.
It’s a sign of how far things have fallen. After-dinner chocs were once genuinely classy. Victoria mints, Elizabeth Shaw crisp mints, Bendicks bittermints, with a royal warrant – these all harked back to the days when chocolates were an expensive treat, to be given as a present and sold in “fancy boxes”.
When After Eights were introduced by Rowntree’s in 1962 they were an attempt to cash in on the rising aspirations and wealth of the middle classes.
The television commercials showed guests and hosts in black tie, and one 1963 newspaper advert featured a woman in full-length evening dress, who trilled: “After Eight wafer-thin mints have the same effect on me as camellias and candlelight; they make me feel expensive, pampered and gay.”
For Robert Opie, who runs the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising, the rot set in during the Seventies, when After Eights became widely available in the emerging self-service supermarkets.
“The little paper envelope was very recherché. But going into the supermarkets meant they became available to hoi polloi, to be put into their baskets alongside frozen food.”
It’s been downhill ever since. My parents used to serve Bendicks at their Seventies dinner parties after the osso buco and Grand Marnier soufflé. But now these chocolates are available on a 3-for-£10 offer from Asda.
“My gosh, they have gone downmarket,” gasps Opie, when I break the news to him.
Dinner parties can be competitive (“I marinated it in sumac and Iranian lime powder for 48 hours. It’s terribly easy,” your host boasts) and occasionally tedious (endless talk of mortgages and Ofsted reports).
But in an era of Charlie Bingham pies, a dish of homemade food, and a bottle of wine – even a linen napkin – shows you have made an effort.
Times, indeed, are tough. But in the words of David Cameron, let’s “spread the privilege” and open some after-dinner mints.
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