Milan, 20 May 2020
My wife’s English is really very good. Readers may think I’m biased, but really, it is very good. Whenever we meet British people, they are regularly surprised to learn that she is Italian. She has not a shadow of that “typical” way of speaking English which so many Italians have (“It’s-a not so bad, it’s-a nice-a place. Ah shaddap-a your face!”). She doesn’t even have that sort of indefinable accent which surely isn’t British but which you can’t quite place. Her only weaknesses are that she sometimes gets a typical British phrase slightly wrong (what we call a “Poirotism”, after David Suchet’s Hercule Poirot, who has this same tendency). And there are some words which she regularly has problems pronouncing. One of these is Worcestershire. It’s one of those legions of English words which are enunciated completely differently from the way they are written. A foreigner would be forgiven for thinking that it should be pronounced Wir-ses-ter-shay-r, and not WUUS-teuh-sheuh, which is the way a Brit would pronounce it. My wife does quite well, but she still stumbles a little over the “teuh-sheu” bit.
If I bring this up, it’s because my wife has been saying “Worcestershire” quite often since we went into lockdown more than two months ago, for the simple reason that she was using a lot of Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce in her cooking during lockdown, to add some zest to the food and help us feel a little less mournful. She has since continued on this track.
She is really quite liberal in her use, judging by the number of little L&P bottles which I have to recycle. Under normal circumstances, we would get through one, possibly two, bottles a year. In just the two months of lockdown, I must have thrown away at least three bottles.
But I have to say, Messrs Lea and Perrins’s sauce did add a je-ne-sais-quoi to the food it was applied to. Which of course is the whole purpose of the sauce, and has been ever since it first came onto the market in 1837 (I know this date because in my moments of idleness I have been reading up on Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce). What was the source of that sweet yet pungent je-ne-sais-quoi, I have been wondering?
The label, of course, doesn’t really answer the question. It merely lists the ingredients in no particular order: malt vinegar, spirit vinegar, molasses, sugar, salt, anchovies, tamarind extract, onions, garlic, spices, flavourings. It doesn’t tell us how much of each ingredient is used, and, in the case of the last two ingredients, what spices and flavourings are used exactly. As I have noted in an earlier post on the Austrian soft drink Almdudler, the recipes for commercial brands tend to be locked away in particularly secure safes.
Except that in this case, by one of those happy twists of fate which make life so interesting, the recipe was divulged – at least the recipe as it was around the turn of the last Century. In 2009, Brian Keogh, who had been an accountant at L&P until his retirement in 1991 and who had then become an archivist for the company, discovered, thrown away in a skip at the company factory, an old ledger, which he retrieved before it was sent off to the dump. Just as well that he did, because it contained, among other things, handwritten write-ups of the recipe! For any readers who are interested, Mr Keogh authored a book called “The Secret Sauce: a History of Lea & Perrins”, where he describes his discovery and also gives a history of the L&P Worcestershire sauce. I include here pictures of the pages in the ledger showing the recipe used in 1907.
(those interested in seeing the real ledger should go to the Worcester City Art Gallery & Museum)
For those readers whose eyesight is fading, you have my sympathy and I have recreated a table below with all the ingredients as they were in 1907 (although the writer has noted at the top “Return to old formula”, so no doubt these were also the ingredients in earlier decades). As for the quantities, those given in the ledger are “for one cask” and as a result are pretty damned large. They are also given in those cute units of pounds, ounces, and gallons which the British used before they entered the modern age and adopted modern metric units. I’ve translated all the quantities into metric units and scaled the amounts to make 1 litre of the sauce – that seems more than enough sauce for any determined reader to make should he or she decide to rush off to the kitchen and start making Worcestershire sauce à la Lea & Perrins.
What emerges is that, at least in 1907, Lea & Perrins sauce was in large part vinegar, to which was added a good dollop of soy sauce, water, sugar and anchovies, along with a hearty pinch of tamarind, shallots, salt and garlic, a smaller pinch of red pepper and cloves, and a smidgen of essence of lemon.
Since the vinegar is such an important part of the overall sauce, I throw in a comment about it. I’m not entirely sure what is meant by vinegar F. or by acetic acid, but if readers look closely at the red writing on the second page of the ledger which I inserted above, they will see a calculation on the level of acidity of the mix of vinegars. It would seem that small amounts of a very strong vinegar were used to raise the acidity of the main vinegar. The modern version of the sauce still seems to use this trick, although nowadays malt vinegar and spirit vinegar are used. For anyone dedicated enough to make the sauce at home, please note that they should ensure that the vinegar mix they end up with has an acidity of 6.12% (I’ve just noticed that the wine vinegar we routinely use at home has an acidity of 6%, so maybe there would be no need to diddle around with vinegars of different acidity if you buy the right vinegar).
Since I’m commenting on the ingredients, perhaps I can make a couple of other points. The first is that the modern recipe has abandoned shallots in favour of onions. Why that should be I don’t know. Unavailability due to war led to the second big change, when soy sauce was dropped during World War II and replaced by Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein, or HVP. This stuff is produced by boiling foods such as maize or wheat in hydrochloric acid. The acid breaks down the protein in the foods into their component amino acids. The resulting acidic solution is then neutralized with sodium hydroxide, leaving behind a dark-coloured, salty liquid. Sounds most unappetizing, but HVP is used in a lot of foodstuffs to give a bouillon-like taste. After the war, L&P continued to use HVP, because it was cheaper and presumably didn’t much affect the taste. From the list of the current ingredients on the label, I also see that at some moment between 1907 and today the company introduced molasses into the recipe. Again, I’ve no idea why they did that – perhaps to cut down on the amount of sugar?
Of course, I will be told that the ingredients is only half the story – maybe even less than half. How you put them together is even more important to the final taste. In the case of L&P sauce, pickling and curing seem to be very important. Today, the anchovies are fermented in salt for 2 years while the onions and garlic are separately pickled for 18 months in vinegar – from entries in the ledger, I get the sense that in the old days the two were pickled together, but I may be wrong. And then, after all the ingredients are thoroughly mixed together and homogenized, and the mash strained , the resulting liquid is put into barrels and left to mature for up to three years. This post-production maturation is a key part of the sauce’s creation story. It is said that when Messrs Lea and Perrins made their first batch, they of course tried it and found it to taste awful. They put it in a barrel, which they shoved in their cellar. They forgot all about it until a few years later, when they were clearing out the cellar. They came across the barrel, tried it again, and oh miracle! it now tasted delicious. And that was the start of Lee & Perrins’s Worcestershire sauce.
To be honest, I find this story somewhat dubious. But the other part of the sauce’s creation story – the part which explains where the sauce came from – is frankly unbelievable. Let me explain why.
But first, I need to introduce Messrs Lea and Perrins a bit more. These two men, born and bred in Worcestershire, were chemists – in today’s language pharmacists – who jointly ran a chemist’s shop in the town of Worcester. Their shop has disappeared, but a very similar shop was rescued and is now to be found in the Worcester City Art Gallery & Museum.
Here are our two chemists – John Lea to the left, William Perrins to the right – at a time in their lives when they had become prosperous from selling their sauce.
As chemists, they would routinely have made up not just medical prescriptions but also other mixtures which their clients wanted. For instance, the ledger rescued from the dump has listed (on pages 18 and 19, for any reader interested in looking) not only the recipe for Lady Heskeeth’s pills but also recipes for Effervescent Cheltenham Salts, Lemonade Syrup, and Curry Powder. The story which the company put around in the first decades of the sauce’s life was that one day, a certain Lord Marcus Sandys, former Governor of Bengal, had walked into Messrs Lea & Perrins’s chemist shop in the early 1830s and asked them to recreate a sauce which he had encountered during his time in Bengal and which he had come to like enormously. Then he seems to have completely forgotten to come and collect his sauce, and, as I recounted above, our two chemists tried it, found it disgusting, shoved it in a barrel (rather than throw it down the sink, which is what I – and I’m sure most of my readers – would have done), put the barrel in the cellar, and forgot all about it for a couple of years .
Well, a Lord Marcus Sandys certainly existed around that time; he was 3rd Baron Sandys and his seat was in Ombersely, some 10 km from Worcester, so he could have gone into to Worcester to Messrs Lea & Perrins’s chemist shop. I throw in a painting of the Lord by Sir Thomas Lawrence.
A great story, right? And a masterstroke in marketing. It combines a touch of the exotic (“sauce from Bengal”) with an aristocratic connection. The English were (and maybe still are) terrible social snobs, so manufacturers often tried to connect their products with members of the aristocracy. I have written an earlier post about a similar story in the naming of Earl Grey tea. And during the 1800s, the British were building their Empire, so there was a fascination among the public with the strange and wonderful things pouring in from this Empire.
Unfortunately, there are two problems with this story, one major and one minor. The minor problem is that Lord Marcus was not a Lord in the 1830s when the sauce was developed. He only became a Lord in 1860. But that’s OK. He could have been a mere Esq. when he asked our two chemists to make up the sauce, but he still became a Lord later on. Our two chemists would merely have stretched the truth a little. But there is the major problem, which is that Lord Marcus was never Governor of Bengal. In fact, he never visited Bengal. Nor did his elder brother, who was the second baron. Nor did his mother, who was the first baroness (and who was baroness at the time the sauce was created). Nor did his father, who was 2nd Marquess of Downshire.
So where did this sauce come from? We have to presume that our friends John Lea and William Perrins picked up the recipe somewhere, or picked up a sauce somewhere and tried to recreate it, sensing a market for such a sauce. When Michael Portillo visited the Lea & Perrins factory a few years ago during the BBC’s Great British Railway Journeys series, the person he interviewed told him that the original recipe was from Bengal and that Lea and Perrins had added fermented fish to it.
This could well be possible. As I discovered on the Food Timeline website, there were certainly a number of sauces based on fermented anchovies doing the rounds in the early 19th Century: anchovy sauce, essence of anchovy, fish sauce, Quin’s sauce. More or less at random, I have chosen to report here the recipe of a Quin’s sauce reported in William Kitchener’s The Cook’s Oracle, containing Receipts for Plain Cooking, of 1821. To get us into the spirit of things, I insert a photo of the cookbook’s title page.
Here is the recipe (as we call them nowadays):
“Two wine-glasses of port, and two of walnut pickle, four of mushroom catchup, half a dozen anchovies, pounded, the like number of eschalots sliced and pounded, a table-spoonful of soy, and half a drachm of Cayenne pepper; let them simmer gently for ten minutes; strain it, and when cold, put it into bottles; well corked, and sealed over, it will keep for a considerable time.”
As readers can see, we have in common with the 1907 L&P recipe the anchovies (which are actually pickled, although it’s not clear from the write-up), the shallots, the soy sauce, and the pepper. Other recipes for fish-based sauces contain the garlic, the cloves, the vinegar, and even the lemon. What the 1907 recipe doesn’t have, but was present in nearly all the fish sauces, is mushroom and walnut ketchups (the history of ketchups being a fascinating story in its own right, perhaps the subject of a future post).
So my guess, based on nothing more than a hunch, is that John Lee and William Perrins took one of the many recipes for a sauce based on fermented anchovies floating around – maybe one used by their wives – and made one big change: they substituted the walnut and mushroom ketchups with a tamarind sauce.
That tamarind sauce could well have come from Bengal. Bengali cuisine certainly uses tamarind a lot. And maybe this popular Bengali tamarind-based dish, tamarind chutney (or tetuler chutney in Bengali), whose photo I give below, somehow made its way to Worcester. I could well imagine that Brits who had been to Bengal during the early 1800s got to know this chutney and brought it back to Britain. After all, they brought back a number of chutneys.
I have no idea why the two partners thought of using this chutney or some other tamarind sauce instead of the walnut and mushroom ketchups in the fermented fish sauces which the Brits slathered on their food. Nor can I guess why they decided to let their concoction cure in a barrel for several years. But they did, and became very rich because of it.
I don’t know if there is a moral in this story: be careful what you throw away; don’t make up silly stories; truth is always stranger than fiction; think out of the box (or barrel in this case) and you’ll get rich; play on people’s snobberies; … I let my readers decide for themselves.
And do all remember that it’s pronounced WUUS-teuh-sheuh sauce.