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You can tell a Brit by their kitchen cupboard. Flavored vinegars may come and sun-dried tomatoes may go, but there are some abiding classics that never waver from our pantries. These are the relishes and sauces that our parents, our grandparents, and even their grandparents used to spice up the simplest repast and perk up the plainest of wartime rations. So kit out your kitchen like a Brit, and get ready for a flavor boost that’s stood the test of time.
Britain is a barley nation. It’s the foundation of our beer, our spirits (hello whisky!) and our favorite vinegar, malt, without which, fish and chips would be unthinkable.
Malt vinegar is made from germinated dried barley grains (malt), which bring a toasty, nutty character to the condiment. It’s perfectly designed to cut through anything fried or fatty, from a classic chip supper, to (my favorite) a meat and potato pie.
One of the most recognizable products in Britain, thanks to its distinctive pear-shaped bottle, Sarson's, was founded in London in 1784 by Thomas Sarson, but really took off when his son, James, took over the business in 1850. James renamed the product Sarson's Virgin Vinegar, a reference to the parable of the wise and foolish virgins in the Bible (Matthew 25)—a preachy marketing tactic we’ll see again in the highly moralistic Victorian Age of condiments. By 1913 the factory was producing more than a million gallons a year.
Though production is now based in Manchester, you can still visit the old Sarson's factory in Bermondsey—and if you have half a million dollars to spare you can live there too: it’s been converted into luxury flats.
While we’re thinking about fish and chips, let’s talk about Maldon Salt.
Beloved by Delia (guys, get into Delia, she’s like the British Ina!) and Nigella, and anyone who owns an Aga (that's a stove, for all you Americans), Maldon Salt in its classy white box, has become the trendy salt of choice of late. But, of course, it’s hardly a new phenomenon.
People have been panning on the Essex tide marshes for 2 millennia. The Doomsday Book of 1086 reveals that there were 45 saltpans in the area. Officially, the Company Of Master Salt Makers behind Maldon Sea Salt has been trading under the name since 1882. The fine flakes and occasional pyramid crystals have a gentle saline flavor that makes pretty much anything you sprinkle them on sing.
To mistake English mustard for American mustard is a dangerous mistake. Fiercely yellow, and sinus clearing, English mustard gets its kick from the combination of two different kinds of mustard seeds: white, which bring the initial almost wasabi-like punch, and brown, which provides the lasting heat.
Mustard powder can be stirred directly (if cautiously) into gravy, sprinkled pinch by pinch into white sauce, or whisked into salad dressing. As a paste, it’s as essential to a good ham sandwich as the ham and the bread.
The most famous mustard in Britain is Colman's, established by James Colman in 1814 in a watermill near Norwich. It began commercially producing its classic mustard powder in 1823, and still uses local crops, which cover the Norfolk countryside in bobbing yellow flowers. In the great tradition of Victorian moralists, Colman’s factory was famously progressive, with a free school, and nurse’s surgery for workers. In 1886, Colman’s was granted a Royal Warrant by Queen Victoria, and it’s been served in the Royal Household ever since. If it’s good enough for the Queen….
It’s impossible to imagine a British fridge or larder without a bottle of HP Sauce in it. Like its namesake, the Houses of Parliament, which is feature on the label, it is an institution.
The original recipe for HP—featuring tomatoes, malt vinegar, molasses, and tamarind spice—was developed by Frederick Gibson Garton, a grocer from Nottingham. In 1895, he paid off a debt by selling the recipe for £150 to Edwin Moore, the founder of the Midlands Vinegar Company. Moore had heard that a restaurant near the Houses of Parliament was serving the sauce, and had the idea to name it after the landmark. The sauce’s rise to ubiquity had begun.
Though HP now comes in a convenient squeezy bottle, connoisseurs prefer the traditional glass, where you have to impatiently pound the base to get the sauce to creep—or blob—out. Whatever way you access it, you’re mere moments away from bacon sandwich perfection. Seriously. If you’ve never tried this, run, don’t walk.
Is it even a British pantry if there’s not a slightly gooey tin of golden syrup stuck to the shelf? For pouring over porridge, for sweetening a stew, for twizzling on a crumpet, or for stirring up emergency flapjacks, there’s always a good reason to lever up the lid and spoon out a sticky mouthful.
Golden syrup is really a genius marketing move. Back in 1883, Charles Eastick, a chemist at the Abram Lyle & Sons, discovered how to turn the crystalline treacle waste product of sugar refining into a gooey spread. A devout Christian, Eastick made the rather bold marketing choice to put a rotting lion corpse swarming with bees on the tin, along with the slogan “out of the strong came forth sweetness,” a reference to the story in the book of Judges. The image and the line were trademarked in 1904, and that piece of legalese makes Lyle's Golden Syrup the carrier of Britain’s oldest branded packaging, according to the Guinness Book of World Records).
Marmite & Bovril
Forget Brexit. The most divisive question in Britain? Do you love Marmite, or do you hate it?
In the late 19th century, a German scientist, Justus Von Liebig, discovered that brewers yeast could be concentrated and eaten, and the spread was born. Not long after, in 1902, the Marmite Food Extract Company was founded in Burton, close to the Bass Brewery, which supplied the yeast. The name itself comes from the French name for the earthenware pot that Marmite was originally sold in—there’s a picture of a Marmite pot on the label today.
Marmite is the Platonic perfect spread for hot buttered toast or crumpets, but you can also use it as a flavor booster to stews, or try the after-school special, marmite and butter melted over spaghetti.
If you like Marmite and are feeling a bit more adventurous, get your hands on a jar of Bovril, a similarly dark extract, made from beef. It was originally created during the Franco Prussian war as a way of providing meat nutrition to soldiers at the front (and un-appetizingly called Johnson’s Fluid Beef). The branded product Bovril was created in 1886, and has been bolstering spirits and dividing families more divisively than Marmite ever since.
Another good test of Britishness? Having a bottle of Worcestershire sauce in your cupboard—unless you’re from Yorkshire, in which case, you probably have a bottle of Henderson’s Relish, instead.
A recipe with Colonial roots, the story goes that Lady Sandys of Ombersley Court, Worcestershire, commissioned local chemists Wheely Lea and William Henry Perrins to make her up a spicy condiment based on a recipe from Sir Charles, Chief Justice of India. The experiment did not get off to a good start. When Lea and Perrins tasted their brew—a secret combination of anchovies, brine, molasses, vinegar and spices—it was inedible. However, a few months later, when they’d let it sit and ferment a while, they noticed that the flavors had smoothed and rounded out into the sauce that we know and love today. It was 1837, and a legend was born.
By World War II, Lea & Perrins sauce was considered an essential condiment. The company arranged for bottles to be shipped to the front, advertising that “Your soldier friends will appreciate the gift of a few bottles of Lea & Perrin’s sauce to use with their War Rations. It makes Bully Beef appetizing, and when mixed with jam is an excellent substitute for chutnee.”
War or no war, my Grandma always made corned beef with Worcestershire sauce—a habit she passed on to me. But where the condiment really sings for itself is in Welsh rarebit, a bubbling melted cheese on toast. Try it with a creamy cheddar like Hafod Organic, (from Bwlchwernen Fawr in Wales, of course) for a supper to warm the soul.
Is it fancy? No. It is fashionable? No. Is there a bottle in my fridge anyway? Obviously.
Salad Cream, an emulsion of oil, water, egg yolk, mustard, and vinegar, was the first product created by Heinz specifically for the British market. It was created at Heinz’s Harlesden kitchens in 1914, and really came into its own during the war when rationing began. Tomato ketchup was taken off the shelves because ingredients were in short supply, and salad cream stepped into the breech, helping people perk up bland and repetitive meals.
The classic salad cream salad, as made by grandmothers up and down Britain, involves iceberg lettuce and a hard-boiled egg, or possibly a nice bit of tinned salmon. More often, I use it in potato salad, or, mixed with yogurt, as a dip for crudités.
Let’s talk about the perfection that is a ploughman's lunch.
Crusty bread, a selection of British cheeses (a squidgy slice of Kelson Park, a sharp hunk of extra strong cheddar, a tangy wedge of Blacksticks blue), maybe a tranche of ham, maybe a slice of pork pie, a local apple, and a blob of pickle. Not a pickle, singular, but pickle, a mixture of chopped vegetables, vinegar, sugar, and spices that you dollop onto your plate. There is no better thing to eat after a brisk walk, in a country pub, by a roaring fire. And so, it is not surprising that Brits have strong opinions about pickles.
Generally speaking, pickles fall into two camps: mustard and sweet. Branston Pickle, named after the factory where it was created, is the quintessential sweet version, made from swede (that's rutabaga), carrots, onions, cauliflower, and gherkins, smothered in a syrupy tomato sauce.
The origins of the recipe have something of a mythic feel, but it’s generally accepted that when the Crosse & Blackwell factory opened a location in Branston, one of the workers, Mrs. Graham, created the condiment in the dormitory kitchen for her daughters Evelyn and Ermentrude. Word spread, and the rest is history.
The recipe has not changed since that first jar back in 1922, which means that the crumby, creamy Lancashire cheese and pickle sandwiches that I eat taste exactly the same as the ones my grandfather and great-grandfather ate. Now that’s a food legacy.
The companion pickle to Branston, Piccalilli is a mustard pickle with its roots in the British Raj. A recipe from 1758, “To Pickle Lila, an Indian Pickle,” written by Lady Anne Blencowe, reveals the condiment’s growing popularity, and connects it into the tradition of the classic Indian preserves achar.
With its vivid yellow color from the turmeric and distinctive mustard kick, Piccalilli is a sauce on the side, rather than a spread. It pairs well with all kinds of cold cuts, and it’s perfect with kippers and even hot smoked salmon. If you’re in London, you can find everything you need to make the perfect picnic at Borough Market (check out Neal’s Yard Dairy for the ultimate cheese plate and The Ginger Pig for a traditional pork pie to go with). But, as its heritage suggests, it’s the perfect accompaniment to spicier foods—and my family’s go to for leftover Christmas Turkey curry.
Do you have any of these condiments in your pantry? Which is your favorite? Let us know in the comments!
We've partnered with VisitBritain to take a closer look at the foods, producers, restaurants, and regions that make Great Britain a top destination for food-loving travelers. Follow along on Instagram to see what's going on across the pond at @lovegreatbritain and what Great Britain is eating at @greatbritishfood.