The most quintessentially English food

In the run-up to St George's Day, Anna-Marie Julyan attempts to solve that most English of preoccupations: where to source the best condiments.

Walking into a supermarket now we are faced with cuisines from all over the world, and are undoubtedly the richer for it.

But on St George’s Day, the huge array of options does beg the question: what is typical English food nowadays?

Unfortunately, critics have argued that compared to, say, Italians or the French, the English lack a truly differentiated and flavourful food culture, but the little pot sitting next to your plate of roast beef begs to differ. That pot might contain Colman’s mustard or a creamed horseradish sauce – but its fiery flavour speaks volumes about the English palate.

Our condiments are quintessentially English

Strong flavour has long been important to the English, as a survey of condiments produced across its length and breadth proves.

Take, for example, Cumberland Sauce, originally from England’s South East, with its flavours of red currant jelly, port, mustard and orange. Or Mint Sauce, which combines the sweet sour flavours of sugar, salt, vinegar and mint. This mixture of sweet and sour; fruit and acid was a palette used by medieval cooks. It’s a specifically British addiction, running counter to the separation of flavours favoured by French cooks from the seventeenth century.

The word ‘relish’ (in the sense of a sharp substance used to make something else taste sweeter) was part of the English lexicon at least from the 1600s. And the introduction of spices, exotic fruits and rum, not to mention ideas, from the  Empire’s trading ships spawned a wealth of sauces specific to each region. For example, chutney, derived from the Hindi word Chatni meaning a hot or spiced relish, was seized upon by retired civil servants and soldiers of the Empire, who substituted mangoes and tamarinds with local orchard fruit. Piccalilli (or Piccalillo) was another Indian-inspired creation.

It was in the Victorian era of progress and innovation that the bottled sauces we know and love today – HP Sauce, Worcestershire Sauce, Tomato Ketchup – were born. All of these shared the same lip-smacking tendencies, but long before they appeared the English had one particular and abiding preoccupation: namely, mustard. Mentioned in English texts from the Middle Ages, English mustard was traditionally coarse rather than smooth, perhaps unsurprisingly because the seeds were ground by mortar or canon ball! It underwent a transformation from the early 1700s when fine sieved mustard flour, which makes up traditional English mustard, became widely known. The rest is history.

Unfair as it is to accuse the English of a bland palate, what would be fair to say is that our love of condiments has entered a new phase. Much as the original nineteenth century store cupboard brands remain popular, in the past 20 to 30 years there has been a regional renaissance, and here is my pick of the pioneers.

Tracklements, Wiltshire:

It all starts with the Wiltshire Tracklement Company, whose founder William Tulberg in 1970 invented the first English whole-grain mustard to be marketed in England for many years. The success of his Urchfont Chilli Mustard prompted other companies to follow suit. Tracklements now has a fantastic range of mustards and sources all its yellow mustard seed locally, but I fell in love with the Chilli Jam, which is made with fresh chillies and won a Gold Star at the 2010 Great Taste Awards. 

The Hawkshead Relish Company, Cumbria: 

Based in the Lake District since 1999, Hawkshead Relish prides itself on hand-making local specialities, of which the bestseller is Westmorland chutney. Described as the “daddy of all chutneys”, this for me is a better Branston, incorporating the spices plied by Caribbean trading ships which docked at nearby Whitehaven. Worth a mention is also Damson Paste – a delicious local speciality much like Spanish Membrillo, and known traditionally as Damson Cheese.

Kitchen Garden Preserves, Gloucestershire:

Kitchen Garden Preserves was a little secret revealed to me by Partridges’ condiments buyer Jim Corfield. The company, founded by Barbara Moinet in 1989, has a policy of not selling to supermarkets, instead supporting independents. My absolute favourite is Fig and Plum relish, which won two Gold Stars at the 2010 Great Taste Awards. It goes beautifully with strong cheese, or Barbara suggests stirring some into a lamb tagine before serving.

Suffolk Mud, Suffolk:

Suffolk Mud is a sister brand to the more widely-known Stokes Sauces. It was founded in 2004 as a range of “quintessentially English products”, and is particularly interesting because of new and innovative tie-ups with local brands. New for 2011 are Bramley Apple Sauce with Aspall Cyder, Farmhouse Chutney with St Peter’s Best Bitter and Bloody Mary Ketchup with Chase Vodka. I would highly recommend the Red Onion Marmalade, made with sticky black treacle and balsamic vinegar.

The Bay Tree, Somerset:

Started in 1994, The Bay Tree is the place to look for the ultimate brown sauce. No full English Breakfast would be complete without one, and this has bags of fruity character. To prove the point, it won two Gold Stars at last year’s Great Taste Awards. The Somerset-based company also has a diverse range of jellies, such as a Lavender Jelly to try with chicken, while its latest addition is a Rosemary, Gin & Juniper Jelly.

Also worth a look but BE CAREFUL

A number of companies have more recently started growing their own chillis and are making some fantastic condiments. Try the South Devon Chilli Farm for elderflower and chilli jelly sourced on the farm. Also, The Chilli Company in Suffolk, founded in 2001, has a lovely range, although be warned, their award-winning Sweet Chilli Sauce is “searingly hot”, by which I mean the hottest thing I have ever tasted.

Also worthy of your attention:

The chilliest chilli farm in the world

Antonio Carluccio's Spaghetti with Garlic Oil and Chilli



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