Saturday, August 27, 2005

Condiments

I struggled, dear readers, with the title to this entry, trying to come up with something clever along the lines of "continental condiments," which, sadly, would not have been accurate since England is, of course, not part of the continent, or remembering how I would sit in a Little Chef (sort of, but not quite, an English version of an IHOP: they are fairly common along the A highways that we drove on, and since we needed to make a few stops on the way to and from Cornwall, we saw the insides of a couple of them) and look at the bowl of odd condiments and think to myself, "Well my legitimate, I must have your condiments," which I knew, even before I looked it up, was not quite the phrasing that good old Edmund had used, though I think I did share his general feeling of avarice, even if I didn't actually walk off with any of the little packets or, indeed, attempt to have my brother disinherited, but of course, my parents' net worth is certainly not in Gloucester's league, and if my mother just leaves me her cast iron skillets, I'll consider myself very fortunate indeed, not least because it would likely mean that she hadn't used any of them to assault my father, but let's just leave that topic alone.

Anyway someone cleverer (or more desperate for a thesis topic) than I could probably link the current state of British condimentary to its rise and fall, but as I've indicated previously, imperial history strikes me as among the most tedious of topics, so I will settle for a few long-winded comments on what I saw there.



The above picture is the condiment area at the cafe at Land's End. It has the most complete selection of compliments that I saw in the British isles, though, of course, I did not make a thorough visit or survey, and if there is an eatery somewhere in Surrey that has even more, it has my most humble apologies. As far as my memory and observation can determine, the baskets, from left to right, in the picture above contain salt, pepper, mayonnaise, malt vinegar, ketchup, brown sauce, salad cream, tartare sauce, English mustard, and French mustard (the basket on the table below was empty: I don't even want to guess). Those, of course, are the English names, though I am not entirely sure about how they spell ketchup. If I had been more resourceful and slightly less self-conscious, I'd also have gotten a picture of the bottle of Heinz ketchup/catsup from the pub where we ate on our last night in London, where the ingredient list began with tomatoes and claimed that there were, in fact, 126 grams of tomato in every 100 grams of ketchup. At first, I thought that this was impossible, because of the conservation of mass concept, but then I recalled from limited knowledge of physics (the educational overlords at MIT insisted that I take two semesters, and I passed both of them, but I remember nothing; some day they are going to get fed up with me and revoke my degree) that mass increases as a body approaches the speed of light. It therefore stands to reason that English ketchup is made by the means of some sort of tomato accelerator. Perhaps someone who is familiar with the relevant equations can tell me exactly how quickly a 126 gram tomato must have been moving to end up as 100 grams of ketchup. For the purposes of this problem, you may assume that this quantity of ketchup has 20 grams of other ingredients, but I have no idea how quickly they might have been moving. Just do your best. I give partial credit, so make sure to show your work. I will say that it seems a fussy way to make ketchup, and the result tastes exactly like American ketchup (which, according to the label, is made with tomato concentrate) to me.

I did not look thoroughly, but I did not see any French's mustard in England. If I had, though, it would be English mustard. French mustard is Dijon mustard. Most of the other condiments are self-explanatory, with the exception of salad cream and brown sauce. I was afraid to ever open a packet of salad cream, but my examination of the ingredients list leads me to believe that it is something like Miracle Whip.

Before I delve into the mysteries of brown sauce, let me talk about sugar for a moment. I do this mostly as an excuse to put up one of my very favorite pictures from my vacation. I took it in a small cafe in Mousehole where I had a Diet Coke while waiting for the bus to Penzance. I wish that I had been there at a time where I felt like taking tea just to watch the sugar gravel dissolve, but oh well. On just about any English table (intended for food service, that is), you will find both white and brown sugar. At one bed and breakfast, there were two little sugar bowls with the granulated varieties of each, but it is more usual to find them in packets. Sometimes the packets are rectangular, as one most often finds here, but about as often, they are long, thin cylinders.

Right. Back to brown sauce. I wondered for most of my trip what this stuff could be. Those of you familiar with Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking will know brown sauce as a rather time-intensive reduction of beef stock or broth that has been flavored with a mirepoix and that, in the quickest version, takes about two hours to make. It is beyond fabulous, but it is not exactly the sort of thing that one would expect to find in packets. V. opined that brown sauce was probably some sort of beef gravy (and I suppose that you could, at some level, call Ms. Child's brown sauce a form of beef gravy, but then I would have to chastise you severely and perhaps call you names), but. Well, you can imagine what I might think about cold beef gravy in a packet and how if I were forced to describe those thoughts, I might quickly become unpleasant.

I tried not to think about brown sauce, a task made somewhat easier by not seeing it again for a while. Aside from the cafe at Land's End, I never saw all of those condiments together in one place, though most tables where I ate had some subset of those all jumbled together in a small basket or cup on the table. Tartare sauce, unsurprisingly, was always present in fish & chips establishments, as was ketchup. Salad cream was rare, and I did not see it at all in London.

Early in the afternoon on our last day in London, we stopped in a pub for a pint, and, as we were hungry, we decided to split a sandwich. It was grated cheddar cheese and sliced tomato on a baguette, and it was pretty good. (The English have a variety of grated cheddar sandwiches. V. had earlier ordered a cheddar and cole slaw sandwich that he especially liked.) After we placed our order at the bar, the waitress brought over, first, the condiment caddy. I believe the caddy was mainly a way to deliver the flatware, but there was, nonetheless, a selection of condiments, including the mysterious brown sauce.

But now in a bottle! And in its bottled form, it was fairly obvious that we were dealing with something more in the Ketchup and A1 family than any sort of gravy or real brown sauce. An inspection of the ingredients of this particular bottle of brown sauce (other brown sauces, including Heinz, have similar ingredients, but in a different order) revealed that it had largely the same ingredients of ketchup, but that malt vinegar and sugar were high up on the list, and tomatoes were relatively lower, leading me to believe that they make brown sauce when the tomato accelerators are undergoing maintenance. Anyway, the sandwich came with chips, so I tried the brown sauce, and it tasted a lot like ketchup mixed with malt vinegar and some sugar. It was pretty good on the chips.

The English condiments you really want, of course, are the ones on the breakfast table. I am still just a trifle (and, no, I didn't get any trifle while I was there; we didn't have much pudding generally) put out that when I went for my final visit to Sainsbury's, they did not have any Robertson's Silver Shred lemon marmalade. That is some seriously good stuff, as is the black currant jam, which I did score a jar of. The orange marmalade is good, too. At our first B&B, in St. Ives, the proprietor gave us homemade orange marmalade, which was intense and bitter, the way orange marmalade is meant to be. Some day I will have to make some.

6 Comments:

Anonymous lindy said...

You seem to have avoided sampling the dreaded Marmite. What luck.
Did you try Branston pickle, the ploughman's lunch condiment? I love that stuff.

10:39 AM  
Anonymous anapestic said...

I did not, alas, sample Branston pickle. There is always so much food to try in a limited period of time, and I probably did not do as much research as I should have beforehand. I remember having a much longer list -- and getting to much less of it -- in my five-day French vacation last year. Next summer, I am hoping that we can go to Italy, and I suspect I will also have a very difficult time sampling as much as I'd like there.

4:39 PM  
Blogger Sangroncito said...

I'd die without ketchup. Call me low-class but certain food groups just aren't the same without it.

11:52 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

I agree with sangroncito I love ketchup I use so much that I usually have to have an extra bottle always handy. HP sauce is pretty good as soon as you said Brown Sauce I was going to jump down to comments and tell you it was HP which is pretty good. Did you have a flake bar while you where there OMG they are so freaking good.

8:29 AM  
Anonymous anapestic said...

I would describe myself as cautiously pro-ketchup. I like it on burgers, and I like it on fries, though I probably more often eat fries without any sauce. I probably eat less ketchup now than I did fifteen or twenty years ago just because the kids eat a lot of it, especially on hot dogs, and I just can't get behind the notion of ketchup on a hot dog. I love ketchup on good hash browns, but I sometimes feel like I shouldn't, so I pretend that the ketchup got on the hash browns without my help: "Oh, look! Where did that ketchup come from? Oh well, I suppose that now I'll have to eat it."

I didn't try a Flake bar. If my research is accurate, it is a sort of Cadbury bar, and sadly I have never been a big fan of Cadbury (though, to be fair, I haven't had one in a long while, and perhaps my earlier experience was not representative). I did try an Aero bar, which my Canadian friends rave about, and I didn't see what all the fuss was about. I used to be a big fan of milk chocolate, but over time, I've come to like my chocolate darker and darker. Sainsbury's has its own chocolate bars, which are very good and much cheaper than Cadbury. I thought their dark chocolate with hazelnut bar was especially good. Here in the states, I tend to get my chocolate from Trader Joe's, where I can get good dark chocolate at a good price. I used to buy the 5-kilo bars of Belgian Callebaut, which is really, really good stuff, when I had a discount mail order source, but I haven't ordered any in a good while. The dark chocolate is a bit of a pain to eat, because the bars are so thick and firm that to get a piece you can fit in your mouth, you have to get out a big chef's knife and shave bits off the corners. The Callebaut milk chocolate is easier to cut, and you can easily cut off one of the 500 g demarcations, but it's also so good (even though it's milk chocolate) that I would typically just eat 500 g at a time, and then I'd be sorry afterwards.

9:58 AM  
Anonymous lindy said...

Oh yeah, flake bars are fine. I brought back a huge bag for the folks at work once and they got demolished in no time. They wanted to send me back for more.

2:25 AM  

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