The big sauce mash-up

It’s no longer a choice of just red or brown with your bacon butty. Genevieve Roberts gets to the bottom of a new trend for infusing traditional condiments with odd ingredients

What’s a sausage sandwich without a blob of ketchup or a greasy fry-up with no brown sauce? As for a naked bacon butty – without mayonnaise, I’d rather not bother, the two being so intertwined in my mind.

Condiments are crucial for saucing up the great British classics, and the taste has remained constant, sometimes for centuries. Yet now, in the seasoning section of supermarkets, a quiet revolution is taking place.

Heinz Tomato Ketchup made with balsamic vinegar nestles alongside its traditional spirit vinegar cousin, while HP Sauce made with Guinness is also new to the shelves. Hellmann’s mayonnaise has four flavour varieties, and even the staple of salt has been shaken up with lemon, onion and celery additions.

A total of one million and 57 bottles of limited-edition Heinz balsamic ketchup – made by swapping out spirit vinegar, a recipe first launched in 1876 – will be produced, a mere dollop in the ketchup ocean of the 76 million bottles sold each year across the UK. The first 57 bottles of the sauce, which launched this month, were given to fans such as the singer Sophie Ellis-Bextor, DJ Chris Evans and chefs including MasterChef’s John Torode. In contrast, HP Sauce with Guinness is expected to be a permanent addition to the range.

Nigel Dickie, the director of corporate and government affairs at Heinz, says the condiments mash-up is in response to customer demand. “Consumers’ palates have changed as they’re travelling more and are experimenting with cooking more, and they regularly tell us they’re looking for more variety,” he says. His observation of our changing tastes is reflected in Tesco’s announcement last month that olive sales, once considered exotic, are about to overtake peanuts.

“We’ve become a nation of cooks, inspired by all the programmes on television: people want to add our sauces to dishes themselves, as well as using them as a condiment alongside meat or veg,” Dickie adds. Heinz now offers recipe ideas, including lasagne and spaghetti bolognaise, coq au vin and sausage pasta, all made using ketchup.

Hellmann’s, which offers mayonnaise with a pinch of mustard, a zing of lemon, a touch of garlic and a spark of chilli, has noticed a similar change in people’s tastes. A spokeswoman says the popularity of flavoured mayonnaise has been rising since 2007, while sales of the egg-andoil condiment are on the increase overall. She credits this partly to an increase in people eating at home; they are looking for new ideas and have a desire to experiment in the kitchen. And people aren’t just using it to accompany their meals, but are cooking with mayonnaise when making dishes such as mashed potatoes.

The popularity of flavoured salt can also be credited to Britain’s new-found foodie-ness. Jamie Oliver has written that it’s one of the “simplest and most basic ways of finishing a dish, so easy and tasty, yet hardly anyone does it”.

On his website people can buy lemon sea salt and on his shows he encourages people to experiment and make their own, mashing up red chillis with coarse smoked paprika, tomato and squid ink to salt, along with the more traditional onion, garlic and celery.

Jitin Joshi, executive chef at Vatika restaurant near Winchester, loves variations on traditional condiments, saying they excite by “adding a bit of buzz”. He says the spice salts the restaurant offers are easy to replicate at home. “We make coriander and chilli salt, just by adding dried coriander and chilli, which is great with bread and unsalted butter,” he says. He also makes homemade ketchup in his restaurant kitchen, smoking tomatoes over charcoal, which may be trickier to replicate in the average kitchen.

Omar Allibhoy, who’s the owner of the Westfield restaurant Tapas Revolution and the executive chef of El Pirata Detapas in west London, says he likes to add twists to his salt “because it adds a small fragrance, an aroma”, which makes a dish taste different. “But this isn’t going to become the norm,” he says. “People enjoy lemon salt because it is a good variation, not as a permanent replacement.”

If the new balsamic version of ketchup proves a success – and the addition of 20,000 fans on the social networking website Facebook within two days of launch suggests it already has – it will be interesting to see if it becomes permanent. Heinz has history when it comes to bringing out limited editions, adding them to supermarket shelves for good if they prove popular.

That happened last year, when the company brought out a limited-edition Salad Cream with lemon and black pepper, which came about after one of the Heinz team was experimenting at home. It was the first variation on the original, first sold in 1914. It proved popular, became permanent and this month will be joined by a new variation on the shelves: Salad Cream with cucumber and dill. “Given the success of the last variation, we were looking for different twists,” Dickie says.

While these new twists to classic condiments have been received with delight in some quarters, purists remain unconvinced.

Ian Pengelly, head chef at Gilgamesh, says: “I grew up with Daddies sauce and ketchup. I’m a traditionalist and always have ketchup on my chips. But these variations aren’t my cup of tea. With these sauces I think, if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. I think it’s meant to boost sales and is an attempt to be cutting edge: the companies see chefs doing this in kitchens and want an edge on their competitors.”

He thinks it’s also an attempt to make condiments a bit posh. “Balsamic is a trendy and upmarket ingredient to add,” he says. The Italian wine vinegar, sweetened in oak barrels, first became popular in the UK in the early 1990s as people discovered it on holiday.

Dickie disagrees these new twists are an attempt to make condiments posh. “In a sense, ketchup and our sauces are classless – they’re something that everyone loves,” he says.

Nathan Outlaw, chef at the two Michelin star restaurant the St Enodoc Hotel, in Rock, Cornwall, agrees that “unless [the twist] really is better than the original, it’s just a gimmick”, but believes that experimenting doesn’t hurt. He thinks ultimately people want to try something different, but then return to a taste they love. But he expects that we will keep seeing food-makers bringing out different variations. “It’s certainly something that won’t go away,” he says. “They want to keep consumers interested so they can experiment at home.”

Dickie confirms we can expect to see new flavour combinations in the future. “We have to keep innovating, it’s what people want,” he says. But the proof is in the English breakfast, and in a taste-test with a couple of friends, both HP Sauce with Guinness and Heinz Ketchup with balsamic get allround approval. I prefer the balsamic ketchup to the original, and agree with self-confessed ketchup fan Torode that it has a “richer, more mature flavour”. It’s one shake-up many hope is here to stay.

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