Appreciating British Condiments

By , June 14, 2019

As Americans, we’ve all more or less been taught to disparage and mock English cooking. We all “know” that the British tend to boil everything, not the most flavorful way to cook.

Justified or not, our family has avoided British recipes for the most part.

We apparently make up for what we miss by doing so in our devotion to British condiments!

My love for British condiments begins with a food product greatly reviled by most Americans: marmite.

British condiments

Our favorite British condiments (Photo: Mark A. Zeiger).

I’d tried marmite now and then when I was younger. Like many Americans, I suspect, the dissonance between its appearance and its flavor always threw me off. I always expected something sweet, rather than the actual savory taste.

I became a convert to marmite when I found a couple of pots in a harbor office, where boaters commonly traded paperback books and other items (like condiments) they could no longer use. Each of these pots had a simple message attached via Post-it note: “Eat me.”

How could I resist? I took them home, started spreading it thinly on pilot bread, and became a fan.

Marmite, called a yeast extract paste, is spent brewer’s yeast. I loved it growing up as the flavor of Campbell’s Soup’s vegetable beef barley. In fact, a brewer friend told me that the U.S. doesn’t produce marmite mostly because the Campbell’s company buys up virtually all the available brewery byproduct in the country for their soup!

So, I have to turn to the U.K. for this flavor fix. A few Alaskan grocery stores carry it—occasionally—and we can get it in stores at our nearest local source for most things British, Whitehorse, YT Canada, but we’ve discovered that we can get larger jars through mail order.

marmite

Three of the many sizes of marmite available. (L-R): standard U.S. size (125 g), excellent size (250 g), and “NOW we’re talkin’!”(500 g). (Photo: Mark A. Zeiger).

Next, also from Canada, we learned about H.P. sauce. Apparently, the H.P. stands for House of Parliament?

Our introduction came when friends brought us a bottle from Whitehorse to try. H.P., or “brown” sauce, is much like tomato ketchup with tamarind as the dominant spice. We like it on a lot of dishes. I especially like making a 1000 island-type salad dressing using it, mayonnaise, and nutritional yeast. This is a family preferred dressing for pasta salads.

When we visited Ireland last autumn (see Every Sign a Song Cue) our group consumed a lot of H.P. sauce, and got a kick out of choosing and sampling from the several different company offerings, all of which claimed to be “Ireland’s favorite.”

We don’t use malt vinegar much, because we don’t make and eat a lot of French fries or battered fish, but we like it a lot, and keep a bottle on hand to use now and then.

Another British condiment we like we started by making our own: mushroom ketchup.

We first tried this a couple of autumns back (see Mushroom Ketchup). The recipe we found tasted almost exactly like the standard, George Watkins Mushroom Ketchup, except that we didn’t bother to strain out the mushroom pieces, preferring the meaty chutney instead.

Still, we wanted to try the “real thing.” We almost got our chance in Ireland!

At the first Air B’n’B house we stayed in Ireland, I found a bottle of George Watkins mushroom ketchup in the cupboard. I excitedly showed it to Aly, and we agreed to try it while we had the chance. Unfortunately, we had a lot going on that trip, and we forgot.

No problem, right? I’d just pick up a bottle somewhere on our travels. Surely it’d be on every grocer’s shelf, probably next to the H.P. sauce!

No such luck. I even asked at a tiny grocery store in Ballyvaughan. I wish I’d had my camera ready, to record the look the lovely young clerk gave me. She thought I was joking! “Mushroom ketchup? Are you mad?” her expression clearly said.

This took me aback, until I remembered that the host couple at that cottage apparently spend a lot of time in England, so likely they got the ketchup there.

When we visited Northern Ireland, which is, of course, part of the U.K., we searched the internet, and found that one particular grocery chain in that country carried Watkins. We intended to stop and buy some before we returned to the Republic of Ireland, but missed out.

Again, thankfully, there’s mail order. The last time I ordered marmite, I added a few bottles of Watkins mushroom ketchup to the order.

The funky bottle and old-timey label are great, especially since the labels appear to be hand applied.

It proved worth the wait! We are now true converts, at least until autumn rolls around, and we can make our own again.

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