Saturday, July 19, 2014

Worcestershire Sauce

Once, I was a "poor starving student."  Amazingly, we still use that phrase at Enema U, but today it means a student who has a two-year-old smart phone and has to settle for only a tall mocha crapochino instead of the venti. 

But a few decades ago (quite a few) "poor" meant that I had trouble buying enough to eat.  I worked as a night security guard at a hotel that had large restaurants.  Unfortunately, they were closed by the time my shift began, but the empty restaurants had loads of little baskets full of cellophane-wrapped saltine crackers.  More than one night, I made a meal of out of those crackers.  I discovered that with a little imagination, a cracker soaked in Worcestershire Sauce until it turned brown could remind you of meat--sort of.  If you don't understand this, you need to remember that hunger is the best sauce.

Since then, I've always had a certain fondness for Worcestershire Sauce, and not just because it makes crackers taste good--it also has a history.

Previously, I have written about garum, the anchovy sauce that seems to have been used throughout the Roman Empire, and I described how a student of mine tried to follow the ancient recipe to make a sauce that would have made Caesar proud.  (Or, perhaps just hungry.)

The student's project was a total failure, and the EPA has designated his former home as a potential superfund site.  The resulting toxic sauce was securely sealed in a Mason Jar and buried at the Happy Farm (the same place where I used to take my children's pets when they were so old they had to go live where they could run and play in the sun everyday--you know: a hole dug in the backyard).

Evidently, things do not ferment correctly in the desert almost a mile above sea level.  Which may be just as well, since now, if you really want to try it, you can buy authentic garum from Amazon.  (It's getting hard to think of something you can't buy from Amazon.)  Or, you could just sample the modern day version that is sitting in your kitchen.

As the Romans conquered the known world, they took with them their methods of war (Stick the pointy end into the other fellow.), construction (We need another thousand slaves!), and food (Add enough salt and rotting fish sauce and this tastes pretty good.).  And when garum sauce eventually made its way to India, it stayed.  And stayed.  In fact, it outlasted the Roman Empire.  Over time, a few more spices were added and the flavor became a little less dependent on rotting anchovies. 

Eventually...the British arrived.  (Yes, that was a rather long interval...Several hundred years, in fact...Think of this as the blog equivalent of a dramatic pause.)

Though there are several versions of this story, here's the version I prefer:  In the 1830's, the wife of a British Colonial Official returned to England from India after many years of living "in country."  Her years in India had changed her palate and she found it difficult to adjust herself to British fare.  Once one has sampled curried lamb and vindaloo chicken, it is rather difficult to enjoy a traditional English meal of cold lard balls swimming in a butter sauce.  (I don't know what that meal is called, but I was served it more than once in London.)

Hoping to recreate a little bit of India in England, she took a recipe for a favorite sauce to the establishment of two spice merchants in Worcester.  (For the benefit of the Americans reading this, you pronounce this as 'Wooster."  It should rhyme with rooster.  So the sauce is pronounced "wooster-sure" sauce.  It should not sound as if you are asking for something like  "Winchester Shire" sauce."  (Although, that would make an excellent name for a gun oil.)

The two merchants, Mr. Lea and Mr. Perrins set about making a batch of this in a small wooden barrel.  Not every ingredient was available and some substitutions had to be made.  When finished, the two gentlemen sampled the concoction and immediately labeled the sauce as horrible.  History has lost all record of exactly what was said, but I think Mr. Perrins turned to his partner and said, "I wouldn't let a cow drink from that barrel."  (Well, I have no idea what he actually said, but that's what a Texan would have said.)

The two men wrote the concoction off as a total loss, hammered the lid back down on the barrel, and moved it to the basement.  (They were probably waiting for a moonless night, so they could dump the contents into a nearby canal.  I've run a boat down that canal and somebody has dumped quite a few suspicious things into it, some of which looked a lot like lard balls in a rancid butter sauce.)

Several years later, someone trying to find a little extra space in the basement came across the barrel and decided to sample it.  (He probably wanted to get the taste of lunch out of his mouth).  Surprisingly, the concoction now tasted excellent.  What the two spice merchants had not realized was that the sauce needed time to ferment.

Of course, the sauce has been on the market ever since.  In England, the same company still makes it, while in America, a different company has licensed it and makes it under the same name: Lea & Perrins'.  And today, the company still ages the sauce in wooden barrels for a minimum of three years. (This is after they age the salted anchovies in barrels for three to five years.)

As I discussed last week, the British Army has been all over the world, and everywhere it went, the British Mess included Worcestershire Sauce.  Archaeologists have uncovered these distinctive bottles at the remains of almost every old British fort and military encampment.

At this point, you might be asking yourself, "Why?  Why did the British Army take this sauce everywhere they went?  It doesn't taste that good."

The answer has to do with British military rations.  The British army shipped canned beef to its soldiers all over the world and some of the preservatives used turned the meat a pale green!  Even Englishmen found it hard to eat green canned beef.  Besides adding flavor, as we all know, Worcestershire Sauce will paint almost anything a dark brown color.  You can make almost anything--even green beef--look like "normal" meat. 

So, it's not just for crackers.


  1. Virtually anything with taste in British cuisine comes from India. I blame the British Navy, whose shipboard chefs de' cuisine came up with such delicacies as boiled fuzzy pork, biscuit au' weevils and ratatouie (with actual rats). When these hardy sailors stopped over in India to assist in conquering the place, a place where spices were used to hide the flavor of rot and the smell of the Ganges in the hot summer, they realized they'd hit upon something. Rather the way Texans discovered jalapenos and chili peppers tend to cover up certain of the riper Tex-Mex dishes the cattle trail cooks used to come up with.

    Alas the missus now has a gastro-intestinal disorder and I am reduced to living on bland, unspiced food reminiscent of the only cuisine worse than that served up on British frigates - hospital food!

  2. And in 500 years someone will be writing the equivalent of a blog about Mc I Lenny Tabasco sauce and the post imperial American Empire and the militaries fetish for the stuff, with small bottles in all the rations that the troops ate. Idly enough it had the power to make an MRE taste half way edible.

  3. You are off by 499 years, 364 days, 13 hours, and 32 minutes. Or, in other words, check back here at 12:01 tonight.

  4. I've written a limerick suitable for the occasion: