Food: Sauce of denial

Grown-up ketchup you won't have to hide away
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The sticky red drip of tomato ketchup on the hexagonal bottle of Heinz has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. So when, in adulthood, I discovered that ketchup was American in origin, and not British, it was as if I'd learnt that the design of the Union Jack derived from an Aboriginal matrimonial tattoo. Surely some mistake?

But no. I have been reading reams on the subject - learned tomes such as Pure Ketchup, A History of America's National Condiment. And they leave no shadow of doubt that ketchup first dripped out of a bottle in New England in the 1830s. It trickled across the Atlantic some 50 years later, landing in a jammy smudge beside the great British breakfast. Later it declared a permanent presence here in Sauce Marie- Rose, and made itself indispensable to shepherd's pie and fish fingers.

We consume a bottle of ketchup per head per year, which is a phenomenal figure if you consider that some people eat none at all, so others must have it on everything.

The Heinz version has been around since 1869. First brewed up in Pennsylvania by Mrs Schultheis and Mrs Bingham, it was sold by the gallon from whiskey barrels. The modern recipe is, predictably, a secret - the bottles just say tomatoes, sugar, vinegar and spices. This cryptic list was once documented to include cloves, cayenne pepper, mace, cinnamon and allspice.

Ketchup hasn't always been as lovely as it is today. It can be traced back to the mid-19th century, when America got big on canning, particularly tomatoes.

It began life, rather literally, in the gutter. From early September until mid-October, factories were glutted with tomatoes. The first task was to get rid of the rotten parts and to chuck any misshapen, or green or yellow, fruit onto the floor. These delectable trimmings collected as slops in trenches.

Far from being fed to the pigs as you might hope, this mush was sealed into barrels and allowed to ferment. Then, in the name of parsimony, the skins were removed and sold to farmers as fertiliser, while the remaining fermented mush was boiled up in vast kettles over wood fires. Adding insult to injury, these kettles often scorched the mix. Once it had cooked down to half its volume, in went sugar, spices and vinegar and there you had it - America's national condiment. Apparently a big hit in the Civil War.

Back in these bad old days, the fermented brew was a ruddy, deep brown rather than the luscious, poppy red of modern ketchups. It also suffered from "blackneck", an affliction that exists to this day and develops at the opening of the bottle when ferric compounds in the sauce oxidise. And if you have ever wondered why it is that tomato ketchup is bottled in such unsuitably narrow-necked bottles, which need all that patting on the bottom when upturned, the original sauce was much thinner. The shape that was once so suitable simply stuck around.

What is clear is that at some point in ketchup's evolution, diners got fussy. By the start of the 20th century, the rough-and-ready fermented brews were a thing of the past, and manufacturers were insisting on prime, ripe, red and juicy tomatoes that would render the distinctive blood-red colouring of today.

Heinz proudly advertise that they don't use artificial colourings. I made ketchup with the reddest tomatoes I could find, yet ended up with a muted sauce - so I find the Heinz achievement nothing short of a miracle.

The million-dollar question is that if Heinz is so great, why make your own at all? I see home-made ketchup as a special treat that belongs to the hands-on world of jams and marmalades lovingly brewed and bottled. It's also spectacularly easy to make. It is no harder than an Italian tomato passata - which is essentially what it is - made to taste sweet, sour and spiced. What my own brew lacks in colour it makes up for in delicacy and texture; it's a completely different animal from that of Heinz.

Perhaps mine should have a name. It's estimated that before 1915 in America there were over 8,900 ketchups being marketed, with names like Beefsteak, Conqueror Brand and Eagle Tomato Ketchup. For now, Real Tomato Ketchup will do.

Real Tomato Ketchup, makes 570ml/1 pint

I tend to make this when I need it. To make enough to store in sterilised bottles, double or triple the quantities.

1.4kg/3lb plum tomatoes, chopped 1 small onion, peeled and chopped 1 garlic clove, peeled and chopped 75g/3oz demerara sugar 125ml/4fl oz red wine vinegar 12 tsp sea salt 14 tsp ground ginger 14 tsp cayenne pepper 1 blade of mace 1 level tsp black peppercorns 5cm/2" cinnamon stick

Put the tomatoes, onion and garlic in a heavy-bottomed pan and place over a low heat until the tomatoes collapse into a pulp. Press them down diligently at the beginning so they don't stick and burn. In all, it should take around 20 minutes.

Press the mixture through a sieve and return to a clean saucepan. Tie the whole spices into a small square of muslin or cotton and add all the remaining ingredients. Bring to the boil and simmer for about 45 minutes, until the mixture thickens into a pouring sauce (remember that it will become thicker as it cools).

The sauce is now ready to be cooled and eaten. It should keep for about one week in the fridge. If you want to sterilise it in order to keep it for longer, then proceed as follows.

How to bottle Real Tomato Ketchup

The method for sterilising the bottles is taken from Jill Nice's The Complete Book of Homemade Preserves, now out of print.

You will need bottles with clean corks. Place the bottles in an oven heated to Gas 1/140C/275F and leave for 10 minutes. Bottle the sauce, leaving a space at the top, then loosely push in the cork. Place in a large pail or tall pan with some kind of rack in the base on which to stand the bottles. If doing several in one go, separate them with card or newspaper.

Pour hot water up to the level of the sauce, bring to a gentle simmer and keep it that way for 30 minutes. Remove bottles to a wooden board, push the corks down and trim the top of the corks level with the top of the bottle. Once the bottles are cool, melt some candle wax and brush it around the cork to make it airtight. As this sets, repeat this step.

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