Culture Vulture Columnist Anne Dawson
Can we talk about brown sauce, please?
Imagine for a moment you are a stranger to this beautiful land, steeped in ancient ritual and odd terminology. You find yourself in a typically British pub – you know, the kind with low ceilings, exposed beams, pictures of famous poets or hunting dogs or royalty on the walls, and tables that have a perma-stickiness to them despite having stinky cloths waved vaguely over them after each guest departs? You, foreigner of good intent, order a nice juicy steak with a side of fluffy, gorgeous mash. Or maybe you order a sarnie, a toasty, a butty, a bap, or my personal favourite, a pastie (which, in North America, refers to small tassel worn for, erm, modesty? by burlesque dancers). Whatever you’ve ordered, the server now asks you if you would like some brown sauce. You pause. You wonder if you have misheard, going over all the other things this person, who up until now has been very friendly and engaging, might have meant by brown sauce. You don’t want to offend, of course, so you tentatively ask for it… on the side? The server frowns slightly, perhaps shakes their head at your nonsense request. They return with a bottle (of course it’s on the side, you American knob, they’re thinking) (I’m not American, you think back in outrage) of HP sauce.
DING! The lightbulb goes off. Yes, of course I’d like some HP sauce! It’s delightful! Flavourful! Tangy and delish! But why, why must you degrade it by calling it brown sauce? Is there anything less enticing than the idea of a gooey brown liquid flowing over your meal? No, there really isn’t.
I’m told that brown sauce is a category of sauces, and HP has a specific flavour profile within this genre. But also, they tell me, for the most part it’s a northern thing to call it brown sauce. I haven’t done a lot of in-depth research or market testing into that claim, however, so I’m not sure if I can trust the posh Londoner who told me that, or if it’s just their way of holding the battle line of North vs South disdain. I mean, the name “HP sauce” might not really declare what it is, but at least it doesn’t define itself as being “of the most unappetising colour known to the human eye.”
And here’s a trivia question for you smart Brit-types. Do you know what HP stands for? Because I have a curious six-year-old who is infinitely curious, and she wanted to know. I grew up with HP sauce (probably because my dad was British) and I never questioned it either, so don’t feel like less of a Brit than me for not knowing.
According to the Heinz website, it stands for Houses of Parliament. Cue head-smacking-moment as you realise that you’ve stared at a picture of said Houses every time you poured a generous helping of that sweet, tangy golden amber onto your plate. (Ahem, see what I did there? So much more appetising than brown sauce.) Apparently, the recipe was invented by a chap in Nottingham. He branded it as HP sauce after learning that a restaurant near the Houses was serving it. Now that fella understood the power of language in branding.
The thing is, brown sauce is good. In the world of condiments, I’d rank it quite high when paired with the right food. In fact, despite the world’s misconception that British food is bland and mostly made of day-old leftovers forgotten on the counter (and before you get outraged, may I please point out that both trifle and bread pudding are basically wizened old cake brought back to life by delicious sauce or cream?) most of it is really quite good. I mean, Yorkshire pudding? It’s like you people invented joy in the form of a golden, edible sauce-holder. If you can make a good Yorkshire pudding, you’re welcome in my kitchen anytime. However, I must admit that this regionally-named delight has been demeaned in recent years by a local, shall we say, fast-food joint (there’s my North-American sneaking in again) that has capitalised on that little chalice-of-perfection-in-food-form by making it huge, making it in bulk, and not serving it fresh. There’s nothing more disappointing than a rubbery-tough Yorkshire pudding that needs to be rescued, rather than paired tastefully with, a huge helping of gravy. Fast food and cheap prices are not an acceptable trade for such treason.
So you see, people of England, I’m not disdaining your cuisine, I’m simply suggesting a mild rebrand. Or at very least, a guide-book handed out at the airport to the clueless masses.
Just a little closing note for my fellow-foreign-followers who are still desperately trying to get a finger hold on the steep cliff of strange food names in this country. Scallops, when purchased at a chip shop, are not a seafood. I didn’t know that. And don’t ask about marmite.