Minor British Institutions: Bovril

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The Independent Online

Beef tea. Strange idea, popular still at football matches. But who on earth came up with it? A Scotsman, by the name of John Lawson Johnston, though there appears to be no record of his precise thought process.

Apparently he was offered a contract to supply French armies with beef during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. He didn't send them tins, as perhaps they expected, but a paste that would, with the addition of hot water, become "Johnston's Fluid Beef".

It was renamed Bovril in 1886, the Bov bit coming from bovine, and the "vril" from the name of the "life force" featured in The Coming Race, an early science-fiction novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton.

The British took to it and it enjoyed success before, in the early part of this century, the BSE scare meant the original beef extract was replaced by a vegetarian base, making it an inferior version of Marmite. However, a couple of years ago, makers Unilever decided to put the beef back in – and Bovril is back.