Condiment

The British Condiment You’ll Wish You’d Met Sooner

Oh, did we mention no cheese sandwich is complete without it?

July  2, 2021
Photo by Ty Mecham

My childhood had plenty of very English foods—crumpets, cucumber sandwiches, and beans on toast—but sandwich pickle slipped by me. It took me dating an Englishman while in college in India to be formally introduced.

This man had but one culinary skill (I wasn’t far ahead, either, at the time)—turning out the perfect cheese and pickle sandwich. He had a precise, if painfully slow, manner about his efforts: a uniform amount of butter spread evenly on every slice, each cut of double Gloucester of ideal thickness, and finally, a perfectly apportioned dollop of Branston Pickle.

I had never tasted a sandwich quite like it. The sticky, acidic sauce and sweet, savory crunch set against a sharp, fatty cheese.... it was love at first bite. And, just like that, the cheese and pickle sandwich (to which I'd sometimes add a couple slices of tomato) became my no-cook lunch of choice. For years after, no trip to England was complete without bringing back a couple bottles of Branston, lovingly encased in sweatshirts and jeans.

Much like, say, HP Sauce or Marmite, Branston Pickle is a very common condiment in a British pantry, and is often served as part of that British pub standard, the “ploughman's lunch” (a picnic-style cold meal of bread, cheese, and assorted accompaniments including cold cuts, fruit, and pickle). With a history that dates back to 1922—and a recipe that has stayed the same since—Branston has very little competition in the space it occupies, selling over 17 million bottles a year.

To me, its devastating charm lies in a complex flavor profile of aged umaminess, which comes from the combination of sugar, date paste, applesauce, barley malt vinegar, and various spices. The rest of what goes into it reads much like a roasted veg dinner: carrots, rutabaga, onion, and cauliflower.

Those vegetables are what form the lumpy bits in the pickle that somehow always, as a friend once said, accumulate in the center of your sandwich. Unless you’re eating the smooth version, which is perfect if you love the taste but "aren't keen on the lumps." There’s also a small-chunk version, which comes with the bite but is more spreadable. Your pick of the three depends on what you use it for—and there are uses well beyond a sandwich.

I enjoy it with Triscuits and a sharp cheddar as much as I do plopped on an open-faced melted cheese toast. I’ve used it as a relish in deviled eggs, and even been known to spread it on a dosa—here's where the smooth version comes in handy. If you’re inclined, remember, a little goes a long way. A few years ago, Branston started making chutneys, including a rather good caramelized onion chutney (alongside a bold Stilton, mmmm), but it could never take the place of sandwich pickle in my pantry.

When I moved to the U.S. seven years ago, I took a break from Branston for the first time since being introduced, unsure of where to find it. However, it was never far from my thoughts, even as I tried to replace it in my cheese sandwiches with date relish or meethi-nimbu (sweet lime) chutney.

Then one day, quite randomly, I stumbled upon a tiny slice of Britain in Brooklyn—a cozy store on the edge of Brooklyn Heights called Two for the Pot. There, amid a diverse inventory of coffees and loose-leaf teas, spices, jams, and biscuits sat several jars of Branston Pickle. I walked out with three, along with one pack of Hobnobs, two bags of Walkers crisps, and a spring in my step.

Although you can now buy it online pretty easily (except for the no-chunk), finding that local supply of Branston—four quick subway stops away—was a game-changer for me. So far, I’ve stopped short of eating it straight out of the jar. Or stirring it into pasta (yep—it’s a thing). But a cheese and pickle sandwich? I’ll take that any time, any day. I’d be happy to make you one, too.

What's your favorite condiment to put in sandwiches? Let us know in the comments!

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Arati Menon

Written by: Arati Menon

Arati grew up hanging off the petticoat-tails of three generations of Indian matriarchs who used food to speak their language of love—and she finds herself instinctually following suit. Life has taken her all across the world, but she carries with her a menagerie of inherited home and kitchen objects that serve as her anchor. Formerly at GQ and Architectural Digest, she's now based in Brooklyn.

25 Comments

Cinnamin July 14, 2021
Ok I am already on Amazon trying to find Branston pickle. And I can imagine how great it would taste with dosa! If I do manage to get my hands on it in my corner of India - maybe I'll take a walk on the wild side and add it to thayirsadam 😮
 
Author Comment
Arati M. July 14, 2021
Do it!!!! And tell me all about it ofc!
 
Giggles July 12, 2021
After being stationed at RAF Lakenheath for 4 years you can bet Branston Pickle (along with a few other lovelies) is a standard in my pantry. If you have access to a base commissary or have friends that do, they usually have Branston pickle stocked along with Coleman's mustard (I loved that so much I visited the museum in Norwich), HP Sauce, assorted biscuits, jams, Wheatabix, PG Tips and Yorkshire gold tea, just to name a few.
 
Author Comment
Arati M. July 14, 2021
I love the sound of your pantry :)
 
Doug July 8, 2021
Anchovy-based Gentlemen’s Relish is delicious spread on toast; added to salad dressings, scrambled eggs, pasta, and mashed potatoes, melted on a steak.
 
Author Comment
Arati M. July 9, 2021
Gonna have to try that one. Thanks for the rec!
 
Jayne P. July 8, 2021
Oh my goodness, you can't have tomato with Branston Pickle. SO wrong. You'd better come over to Cornwall for advanced Branston Pickle lessons. When you've run out, this recipe is pretty good - I made it a couple of times when we were living overseas, and it's a good stand-in for the real thing.
 
Author Comment
Arati M. July 8, 2021
Hahaha a Branston purist! I love it!
 
Jayne P. July 8, 2021
I forgot the link to the recipe, sorry: https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/user/2849041/recipe/not-quite-branston-pickle-pretty-good
 
Claire D. July 7, 2021
I fell in love with Branston's when we first lived in England, in 1978..... there's nothing quite like it! Thankfully Publix carries it (along with Marmite!) so I never run out. Sometimes I find the smooth Branston's at Publix so I have to buy several of those for my daughter who was born in the UK (she doesn't abide chunks). Branston's, Marmite, pickled onions and cockles helped me through my pregnancy with my second daughter while living in the UK - no wonder she loves the stuff as much as I do!
 
Author Comment
Arati M. July 8, 2021
Ah, a kindred spirit! I’m currently visiting England after a pandemic-induced hiatus and plan to dig into every British food, drink, and condiment I’ve missed!
 
Christina @. July 6, 2021
I like Branston enough, but years ago I tried a ploughman's pickle by Norfolk Manor! Goodness, it blew Branston out of the water! I absolutely adored it, however, it's so sad I have never come across it again, and believe it may not be produced anymore. :(
 
Author Comment
Arati M. July 6, 2021
I'd have loved to have tried it! Now you've sent me down a rabbit hole looking for info on this.
 
Victoria D. July 8, 2021
https://www.everythingfood.com/product/0EC7E3D2-030D-4BAA-8B1E-501399ABE209/
 
Linda M. July 6, 2021
Must try this ASAP. And it will be all mine. For some strange reason, my dear husband does not like pickles. Yeah, should have discussed that early on. :) But more for me!
 
Author Comment
Arati M. July 6, 2021
Ah, maybe he can be converted? Give it a try with Branston!
 
Pamela C. July 5, 2021
More British foods and recipes PLEASE
 
Christina @. July 6, 2021
So happy to see your comment! British food has been given such a bad reputation, but I believe it has some of the best cuisine in the world.
 
Stillmeadowlark July 5, 2021
During five years of life in Australia, I grew to love both passion fruit (on their pavlovas) and Vegemite. Also the option of pickled beet slices on a sandwich, meat or cheese!
 
Author Comment
Arati M. July 5, 2021
I do like Vegemite on toast as well! Q: Ever had Vegemite spaghetti? I’ve been tempted to try it; I’ll let you know how that goes.
 
Jennifer M. July 5, 2021
I grew up with Branston Pickle and absolutely love it! I'm so happy I can order it on Amazon in a large size!
 
Author Comment
Arati M. July 5, 2021
Same! When the craving takes over, there needs to be some at arm’s length, always.
 
Author Comment
Arati M. July 5, 2021
Within*
 
Athena July 4, 2021
Thanks for this! It sounds like just what my life has been missing. Off to buy some Branston Pickle.
 
Author Comment
Arati M. July 4, 2021
Can’t wait to hear what you think of it, Athena!