Condiments to the chef
They're the kitchen-cupboard classics, hiding at the back of the larder waiting for their chance. Here's how they got there. Photographs by Adrian Burke
Saturday 05 June 1999
Colman's Mustard The inimitable nasal bite from even the merest smear of Colman's Mustard is like no other mustard experience. Small wonder then that a loyal contingent of Brits carry a tin of the powdered stuff wherever they go, leaving it daubed at the side of their plates like a national calling card. Jeremiah Colman was originally a flour miller in Norwich, and his successful company created the concept of contract farming. To this day it has all its seeds - a combination of brown mustard (Brassica juncea) and white mustard (Sinapis alba) - grown to its specification, according to a well-guarded formula. Its natural yellow colour is rendered even more fierce by the addition of tumeric. And its pungency, it claims, is enhanced by the absence of any heat-treatment to the mustard seeds.
While true British eccentrics will smear the stuff over everything they eat, juicy pork sausages and cold honey roast ham don't so much cry as scream out for it.
Marmite Hot on the heels of the discovery by French scientist Louis Pasteur that yeast cells are living plants, a German chemist realised that yeast could be made into a concentrated product resembling meat extract in both smell and colour. But it wasn't until 1902 that the Marmite Food Company was formed, and even then it turned out that the British extract of brewer's yeast behaved in a markedly different fashion to the French. It was a long slow road to the success it currently enjoys - the British palate acquired the taste over time, its popularity increasing with the discovery of its vitamin content in 1912, which instantly turned it into the darling of hospitals and war-torn countries. Today it is enjoying a second vogue and if the manufacturer's recommendations are to be heeded, all pregnant women should eat at least four pieces of toast and Marmite daily to keep up their intake of folic acid.
A truly singular condiment whose sole metier is the finest film on hot buttered toast. For some reason it tastes even better on soldiers.
Geo Watkins Mushroom Ketchup The secret of many a Victorian cook, this tastes halfway between Worcestershire Sauce and soy sauce with subtle undertones of mushroom. The original ketchups were carefully brewed condiments, but are now all but superseded by convenient modern equivalents like Bisto. Originally, mushrooms were packed - caps, stalks and all - into earthenware jars, salted and placed on the back of the stove until they flowed with dark liquid. Next, the jars were set in the oven and boiled, the sauce strained through muslin, and finally spiced with the likes of black pepper, nutmeg and mace. George Watkins, established in 1830, is the most common brand around, although disappointingly, despite the "ye olde" label design and claim to having been "prepared from an original recipe", is made with mushroom powder. But it's still got to be better than Bisto if you want to highlight the flavour of beef and game.
This particular condiment is also great for pepping up the gravy of a steak and kidney pudding.
Heinz Tomato Ketchup It wasn't until 1946 that Heinz Tomato Ketchup was manufactured in this country, by which time it had been fully naturalised as one of our national condiments, even though its creators, Mrs Schultheis and Mrs Bingham, were pillars of Pennsylvanian society. They first brewed it up in whiskey barrels back in 1869, which was by no means unique - there were, at the turn of the century, an estimated 9,000 ketchups being marketed. It's so ubiquitous that today meat and two veg in the States refers to burgers, chips and ketchup, and in 1981 the Reagan administration tried to classify it as a vegetable to save money on the federal school- lunch programme. Heinz emerged as the pre-eminent brand largely on the strength of its preservative-free pure food policy at the beginning of the 1900s. Tomato ketchup had a fairly murky start in life as a by-product of the canning industry. The rotten and misshapen bits were scooped up from the gutter, fermented in barrels and then boiled up in kettles over wood fires which regularly scorched the mixture. Added to which it suffered from "black neck", the darkening of the sauce at the opening of the bottle when ferric compounds oxidise. Heinz doesn't suffer from any of this as we know, but how do they achieve that poppy red?
Only a food snob would claim their fish pie was too good for tomato ketchup. As for cottage and shepherd's pie, add ketchup and frozen peas and we're talking gastronomy.
Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce If you are in any doubt as to the strength of this fiery and complex sauce, note that one organic West Country farmer, Mr Oliver Dowding, kicks life into apparently stillborn calves with a squirt of Lea & Perrins up their nostrils. Animal welfare aside, just what does it contain? In order to protect the secrecy of the formula, in the past the ingredients have been officially referred to by code names: Bulimay, Buggy, Bugbear, Bugler, Bulldog, Buglehorn and Bullcalf to name but a few. You could guess long and hard and still fail to come up with the alleged blend of malt and spirit vinegar, molasses, garlic, shallots, tamarind and anchovies that are matured and filtered before being spiced with other ingredients. How did anyone dream up this outlandish combination in the first place?
Lea & Perrins has settled on the story of Marcus Lord Sandys, who on returning from India, commissioned Worcester pharmacists, John Lea and William Perrins, to make up his secret recipe. When they came to taste it however, it was so disgusting they shoved it to one side and forgot about it. It was years later that they rediscovered it, and lo, the fiery liquor we are accustomed to dripping over our beef stews was born.
Employed in spicing up Bloody Marys, which would be nothing without their adder's tongue, it's also one of the secrets of success for Welsh rarebit.
Patum Peperium The 19th-century gentry's favourite, the name is a play on the word paste or pate, while peperium derives from the Greek for pepper. Quite why this should be so is still a mystery - it isn't in the least bit peppery, a buff-grey paste that tastes intensely salty and fishy with undertones of iodine. Created in France in 1828 by an Englishman called John Osborn, Patum Peperium is a blend of anchovies, butter, herbs and spices, which typically remains top secret, with no single employee ever knowing the entire process. The recipe was handed down verbally from one generation to another until, in 1971, with no obvious successors the secret was passed on to Elsenham Ltd when Harold Osborn revealed one part of the process and his brother the other. Another truly singular condiment whose finest hour is teatime. Patum peperium has long been aspirational, the stuff of officers and gentlemen although, now you can get it in Sainsbury's, all that has changed
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