Since the beginning of human civilisation, people have used various additives to enhance their food. In fact, the first condiment was one of the most basic additives of all: salt. Salt has had a long history, both as a flavouring and a preservative. Vinegar, which gets its name from the French for ‘sour wine’ has also been popular since ancient times, for both food and medicine.
The Romans came up with many innovations, and they were particularly keen on inventing new condiments, such as mint sauce and a fish sauce that they called liquamen. They may have introduced the mustard plant to Britain, and this soon proved to be the basis for a popular form of English condiment, though like vinegar, it was also used medicinally.
English condiment tastes became gradually more sophisticated from the 16th century onwards, as English explorers and colonisers travelled the world. Pesto, which was invented in Italy in the 16th century, was known to the English upper classes of that time, while bechamel sauce, chutney, soy sauce, hollandaise, ketchup and mayonnaise all had their moments of popularity.
But as well as taking the best of condiments from Europe and elsewhere, English tastes led to the development of some unique and distinctively English sauces, particularly once the mass production methods of the later Industrial Revolution coincided with the inventiveness of the English food industry. The result was the production of some of the most iconic condiment brands in the world, sauces that are instantly identifiable with England and with English cooking.
It is hard to imagine an English fridge or food cupboard that does not contain a bottle of HP Sauce. The HP stands for Houses of Parliament, and it is arguably as recognisable an institution as its namesake. This distinctive sauce, that was first made from tomatoes, malt vinegar, tamarind spice and molasses, was created by grocer Frederick Gibson Garton of Nottingham.
Garton sold the recipe in 1895 to Edwin Moore, who created the Midlands Vinegar Company. Moore had learned that a restaurant close to Parliament was selling the sauce and he had a plan to rename it. The result was a wave of national popularity and HP sauce has become an institution, the perfect accompaniment to a bacon sandwich or a plate of fish and chips.
There are many varieties of mustard in the world, but there is only one English Mustard. This fiercely yellow condiment, with a powerful kick, is made from the combination of two types of mustard seed: brown, which brings the heat, and white, which packs the punch. It is a versatile condiment, available in powder for stirring into recipes or paste, which can add extra kick to sandwiches and salads.
Colman’s has the distinction of being the most famous version of the original and one of the oldest condiment brands in England. It was established by James Colman in a Norwich watermill in 1814. Colman began producing mustard powder in 1823 and to this day, the company draws on local crops of Norfolk mustard. Colman was one of the good guys, as an employer, providing schooling and medical treatment for his employees, and Colman’s Mustard earned the Royal Warrant from Queen Victoria in 1886, which is the biggest endorsement available at the time!
This may not be a popular addition with some, but there is no denying the enduring appeal of this quintessentially English snack. It is, then, slightly disconcerting that its origins lie in Germany, with scientist Justus Von Liebig, who in the late 19th century found that it was possible to concentrate and eat brewers yeast, producing a rich and distinctive spread.
The new food product proved particularly popular in England, and in 1902, the Marmite Food Extract Company was created in Burton, near the famous Bass Brewery, which provided a source of yeast. The name Marmite is derived from the French name for the pot that the product was originally sold in and which decorates the modern Marmite label. If you’re a Marmite fan, you will find an impressive array of uses for it, from spreading on toast to adding to stews or pasta dishes.
Not far behind Marmite in the divisive stakes is Bovril. Another dark extract, Bovril is made from beef, and was originally developed during the Franco Prussian war, as one way of ensuring more nutrition to the soldiers. Originally burdened with the name Johnson’s Fluid Beef, the product was rebranded as Bovril in 1886 and has built up a big following. Many an outing on a cold winter’s day has been enlivened (or ruined, depending on your view) by a flask or mug of this steamy meaty drink.
Arguably the most English of sauces, Worcestershire Sauce is another example of colonial influences. The traditional story is that Landy Sandys, of Worcestershire, had commissioned two local chemists Wheely Lea and his colleague William Henry Perrins to create a spicy condiment based around a recipe she had obtained from the Chief Justice of India.
Their initial experiments were not successful. In fact, it is said that when they first tasted their sauce, made from brine, anchovies, vinegar, molasses and spices, it was nearly inedible. But after a few months of fermentation, in 1837, the flavours had settled and smoothed out to produce a pleasant and distinctive condiment, that was poised to become a household name.
By the Second World War, the sauce was regarded as an essential, and the Lea & Perrins company were asked to ship bottles to the front for the troops. These days it is used in a variety of recipes, from Bolognaise sauce to Welsh rarebit, and has become an essential in the English food cupboard.
The divide between mayonnaise and salad cream is another mark of Englishness. Salad cream doesn’t have much of an audience outside these shores, but for many, there is no alternative.
A creation made from mustard, vinegar, oil, egg yolk and water, it was the first product produced by the famous Heinz company that was specifically aimed at the UK consumer. Created in Harlesden in 1914, it soon became popular when war time rationing hit most food products, particularly tomato ketchup, as tomatoes were in short supply. Salad cream proved a big hit and has been boosting salads and pepping up sandwiches in English kitchens ever since.
Branston Pickle has a popularity of its own, but it has also been boosted by its inclusion in the classic Ploughman’s Lunch, which usually consists of a crusty bread, a range of British cheeses, possibly an apple and a slice of pork pie, and definitely a dollop of Branston Pickle.
This is not the standard pickle, of the kind you might find in your burger. Traditional English pickle is made from chopped vegetables, sugar, vinegar and spices, and provides either warmth and spice or pleasing sweetness. Branston Pickle, first produced by the Branston factory, is the sweet version, and is made with onions, carrots, cauliflower, and gherkins, mixed in a tomato sauce.
The precise origins of this condiment are a mystery, but the generally accepted version is that a worker at the new Crosse & Blackwell factory in Branston, Mrs Graham, created it in a kitchen for her two daughters Ermentrude and Evelyn. The combination proved incredibly popular and Branston Pickle has been a big seller since the first jar was produced in 1922.