The red stuff

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The Independent Culture
It's almost the third condiment. The famous hexagonal bottle that dwarfs the salt and pepper and, when kids are feeding, gets far more use. Heinz tomato ketchup is not the only one, but it's the first and the most famous, essential for the big fry-up, hamburgers and fish fingers.

American Henry J Heinz concocted ketchup in 1876 and his company hasn't stopped selling it since. Early success was partly due to the clear bottle, which enabled buyers to see the purity of the product. That may sound surprising today, when packaged food is regulated by a tome or two of EC directives, but in those days unscrupulous purveyors used to bulk out their products with turnips and other cheap vegetables.

Ketchup comes to Fortnums

Heinz tomato ketchup made it to Britain a decade later, when Heinz sold five cases to Fortnum & Mason. From these upmarket beginnings it spread fast, to decorate dishes - and fish-and-chip wrappings - across the land. And in 1946, 50 years ago, Heinz built a factory to manufacture his legendarily viscous sauce over here.

It's the glutinous nature of the condiment that has spawned a strange bottle-slapping ritual that goes like this. Uncap lid. Inwardly curse as insipid, watery dribble splashes on to plate, followed by - nothing. Pat base of inverted bottle with increasing ferocity to dislodge sauce, causing either a) mouth of bottle to smash plate or b) gout of ketchup to strafe meal and table.

Despite this inconvenience, the sauce sells well, probably because the thickness that causes it to flow so slowly is so much a part of its appeal. Heinz have tried to solve the extraction problem by selling it in a squeezable plastic bottle, a container that is decidedly less elegant than the glass variety, but shortens the delay between uncapping and eating. It also eliminates the build-up of that slowly darkening coagulate that gums the screw-top neck of the glass bottle.

But such trivial drawbacks of the ketchup experience do nothing to dent sales. Every year, this country consumes some 120 million bottles, nearly half of which are furnished by Heinz. Which means that each man, woman and child in the country gets through a bottle of Heinz tomato ketchup every year. In theory, at least. There are, of course, those who shun the red accompaniment, while others get through gallons of it.

The lycopene factor

If you are male, you can now justify this addiction rather more robustly. Earlier this year the findings of a major American health survey were published. The study had looked at the effects of eating different vegetables among a sample of 48,000 men, and has established that tomatoes can significantly lessen the chances of getting prostate cancer. A substance called lycopene, the component that makes tomatoes go red, is the key, and evidently it is best ingested by eating tomato sauce rather than tomatoes themselves. A fine excuse for lubricating a hot dog with an extra shot of the red stuff.

Tasting of the Mediterranean

Feeding Heinz's share of Britain's ketchup obsession requires about 200,000 tonnes of tomatoes yearly, all of which are harvested from the Mediterranean, where the fruit grows bigger, better and redder than in Britain's cooler climate. It takes about two pounds of these tomatoes to produce the puree for a 340g bottle; to this, vinegar, sugar and an undisclosed blend of spices are added. The thickness of the sauce, say Heinz, is entirely down to the quality of the tomatoes.

The origins of the word ketchup are rather vague. Heinz reckons it may come from the Chinese word koe- chiap, meaning a brine of pickled fish. But they don't seem entirely sure and confusing pickled fish with pureed tomato sauce would seem to have been a bit of a culinary blunder. There's no doubt that inventing the stuff in the first place, however, was anything but that