A Very British Condiment
"HP sauce does not taste like peanut butter or jello or worms.
Well, I'm only guessing about the worms." -'librarycows' forum posting
So, what is it? Well to generations of Brits, it is the definitive brown sauce. Lashed into bacon sandwiches, loved on cooked breakfasts and mixed grills, lavished on barbequed meats. Not to forget that it is one of the four major food groups - bacon, grease, brown sauce and tea*.
It's tangy and spicy-sweet, light in texture and dark in colour - think steak sauce or a mild jerk sauce. It can't quite be compared with A1 sauce, but it's close. Neither is it like Lea and Perrins (or Worcestershire Sauce, as it's sometimes known), as that's more often used in cooking, whereas HP is added to the plate. It's a sauce with a history going back over a century, so I will tell you the story now.
Picture the scene. It's nineteenth-century Nottingham. To be precise, place yourself in West Bridgford, a small town within sight of the Trent Bridge cricket ground...
A Saucy Tale
It all began in a small grocer's shop, owned by one F.G. Garton. His modest business was troubled, and he was struggling to pay his bills. In desperation, he took to the evening streets with a handcart loaded with a home-made sauce, to raise a few meagre shillings to keep the wolf from the door.
One day in 1903, one of his debtors happened to be in the area. Edwin Samson Moore, unaware of the part the Fates had in store for him, visited Mr Garton to discuss the debt. In the back room of his shop, he discovered a wonderful secret - a washtub in which the imaginative and innovative Garton was mashing his sauce, and a basket containing bottles of "HP Sauce". The scent aroused Samson's senses, he enquired his the grocer what it was, and Garton told hm that he and his wife developed the recipe in 1899. The enterprising Samson offered to buy the recipe for £150 (a princely sum!) and clear Garton's debt with him. The two agreed, and Samson began to make and distribute the condiment from his Aston Cross base in Worcestershire.
So why the name? Well it seems that Mr Garton heard a rumour that the sauce had been seen in a restaurant in the Houses of Parliament, and eager to improve his brand image, cashed in on the rumour. It is certainly true that it is seen there today, and during the 1960s, was known as "Wilson's Gravy", after the alleged gustatory preferences of Harold Wilson, the then Prime Minister.
The Definitive Sauce
Okay, so HP is not the only brown sauce in Britain, let alone the world. Yet for many Brits, it is, like Branston Pickle, a companion they have known and loved all their lives. Ex-pats order it by mail, badger visiting relatives to bring it to them and hoard it from their neighbours, drawing it forth from their secret hiding-places whenever needed. And needed oft it is.
"Everything goes well with HP Sauce", according to the blurb on the bottle, and it's true! Used to garnish meats of all sorts, the infamous Full English Breakfast, Bauernfrühstück and the humble pork pie alike, the distinctive square-sectioned bottle is proudly displayed on the tables of greasy-spoon transport cafes and classy restaurants alike. Although the brand is now owned by the French Danone company, it is still made and distributed exclusively from Birmingham, and will remain a staple of the British table fare for aye. Long live HP Sauce.
malt vinegar (from barley)
modified maize starch
* The Debutante insists that there are five major food groups, the fifth being ice cream. Others add chocolate. Chacun à son goût.
WaldemarExkul for confirming Canadians enjoy the instutution!
a bottle of sauce