I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Okay, so brown sauce does not have the culinary cachet of béchamel, hollandaise, or béarnaise, but it does have its own distinctive peppery tanginess. Its flavour has been described as “deep, complex and unlike anything else we’ve ever tasted.”
Some not raised in the British gastronomic heritage don’t seem to like brown sauce; words such as “revolting,” “disgusting,” and “blecch” are bandied about without a single thought to how these upset fans of the sauce. Even some Brits affect a superior air; The Guardian once said of HP Sauce that it is “less condiment than contaminant.” Subscriptions were cancelled, and rightly so.
It forms a perfect marriage with bacon, sausage, eggs, and cheese; as a result, it’s an indispensable accompaniment to the full English breakfast.
The History of Brown Sauce
In the late 1800s, a grocer in Nottingham in the English Midlands developed a recipe for what he named HP Sauce. The brew sold well, but Frederick Garton, its inventor, was short of cash. He sold the recipe for £150 to Edwin Moore, the founder of the Midlands Vinegar Company.
For almost 100 years the sauce was churned out of a factory in Birmingham until the mergers and acquisitions boys started shuffling the company around. In 1998, it was sold to the French company Danone for £199 million. When Danone got its hands on the brand The Guardian remarked, “It is hard to know which country’s culinary identity has suffered the greater insult.”
Eight years later, Danone passed HP Sauce on to Heinz for £470 million. Who knew brown sauce could be so valuable? But then, Heinz did the unthinkable—it closed the English plant and moved production to The Netherlands. A Birmingham area Member of Parliament tabled a motion in the House of Commons to have the sauce removed from the parliamentary dining room. She received the support of just 42 fellow MPs.
There was talk of a boycott of Heinz products over its attack on the iconic symbol of Britishness, but it fizzled. Perhaps, Brits are too addicted to a dollop of brown sauce with their bacon sarnies (sandwiches) to give it up. National pride, it seems, has its limits.
The song is the reading of a label that appeared in the bottle from 1917 to 1980. HP Sauce was never marketed in France; the makers were smart enough to realize any such attempt would be an embarrassing flop. No Frenchman was going to perk up his coq au vin with a squirt of brown sauce.
What Is in HP Sauce?
The ingredients of HP Sauce are a closely guarded secret. The label on the bottle tells us there are tomatoes, malt vinegar, molasses, dates, tamarind, sugar, and secret spices in the concoction. The mystery is in those “secret spices.” One of the spices, of course, is salt and there was a great fuss in 2011 when the sodium content was lowered. Here, once again, Heinz got into hot water.
The salt content was cut without fanfare as the company surrendered to a government request to meet new, healthier standards. The consuming public was outraged. The low-sodium HP Sauce was called bland and insipid. How dare the company give in to the dictates of the nanny state and deny the British worker a small blob of garnish with breakfast?
The "Secret" Recipe Is Reverse Engineered
HP Sauce has about 75 percent of the British market. Others, such as Daddies, Branston, and supermarket chain house brands squabble over the rest. But, the rest is significant, as Brits consume 13 million kg of the bottled goo each year.
Even the company that owns the brand seems a little unsure of the origin of the name: “HP stands for ‘Houses of Parliament’ as it was rumoured the sauce was used in the restaurant there, back at the turn of the 20th century” says the Heinz website. The h2g2 website says another version “attributes the HP to one Harry Palmer, sauce-maker and horse-racing fan, who first produced it as Harry Palmer’s Famous Epsom Sauce, in 1899.”
In the 1960s, it also became known as “Wilson’s gravy.” Harold Wilson was the country’s prime minister when his wife, Mary, gave an interview to The Sunday Times. She said “If Harold has a fault, it is that he will drown everything with HP Sauce.” (There were scurrilous rumours that Wilson faked his affection for brown sauce because it made him seem more a man of the people).
The zesty dressing appears to have made its way into the British royal palaces. Each bottle carries the warrant “By Appointment to Her Majesty the Queen.” “Would one care for a splat of HP Sauce with one’s meat pie Mr. President?” Other famous aficionados are said to include Jamie Oliver, Tom Hanks, and Mike Tyson. And, its Facebook page claims 194,000 likes.
In Edinburgh, HP Sauce is cut with vinegar, to become “soss,” and is sloshed on fish and chips. In January 2015, The Guardian newspaper could hardly contain its glee as it reported that HP Sauce sales were down 19 percent over the previous year. The paper has long carried on a campaign of snooty putdowns against this noble product. Calling it a “taste-bud bully,” Tony Naylor remarked that the sales decline “… represents a glimmer of hope that Britain’s relationship with food is, finally, maturing.”
Ketchup or Brown Sauce with the Full English Breakfast? The Liverpool Echo reports (November 2016) “The debate has been settled and the age-old sauce argument put to the sword as 39 percent of people said it was their go to sauce for fry-ups, with only 31 percent choosing red.” Perhaps not as decisive a victory as could be hoped for, leading to speculation the vote was rigged by the dark forces of The Guardian.
- “HP Sauce’s Recipe Secretly Changed After 116 Years by American Owners of the Great British Condiment.” Russell Myers, Daily Mail, September 10, 2011.
- “Our Story.” HP Sauce, undated.
- “Consider the Brown Sauce.” Oliver Thring, The Guardian, May 4, 2010.
- “The HP Sauce Story.” h2g2, November 3, 2008.
- “Brown Sauce Sales Are Falling: Has Britain Finally Come to its Senses?” Tony Naylor, The Guardian, January 5, 2015.
- “Liverpool’s Perfect Fry-up REVEALED and Red vs Brown Sauce Debate Settled.” Connor Dunn, Liverpool Echo, November 20, 2016.
© 2016 Rupert Taylor
Lena Durante from San Francisco Bay Area on May 03, 2017:
I've spent a lot of time and energy trying to explain brown sauce to Americans. Now I can just point them here! Thanks!
David Hunt from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on November 23, 2016:
An article about HP sauce? About time! Brought back memories of my stay in England in the seventies. Couldn't eat breakfast without the brown sauce. Too bad the powers that be can't leave well enough alone. Very well-written, Rupert.