Brown sauce has long been a popular choice on both sides of the Atlantic. But whether it’s HP, or Daddies, OK sauce or Tiptree’s Wilkin & Sons, where did this oddly named condiment come from? And how has it ended up in every supermarket in the western world?
For us British, the most synonymous variety of Brown Sauce is undoubtedly HP; which by their own reckoning accounts for 75% of all sales within the UK brown sauce market. Interestingly, it’s also equally popular in Canada, whereas here in the good old USA, the equivalent A1 Steak Sauce makes up the vast majority of sales. Furthermore, as blue collar as HP sauce appears, it’s complex, fruity flavour is undoubtedly delicious; thinking back I’m surprised I liked it so much as a lad, especially when my dad would insist on lathering up both sides of bacon sarnie with copious amounts of it on a Saturday morning.
Invented in the 1870s by Frederick Gibson Garten; a Nottinghamshire greengrocer with a penchant for marketing - he cleverly knocked up the concoction using exotic tamarind, dates and molasses, and then claimed the sauce was regularly served in the canteen at the height of government. He trademarked the name “HP Sauce” in 1895, and began decorating his bottles with the now-familiar portrait of the Commons (Those with a keen eye will spot the recently added scaffolding on newer bottles). In 1903, a local vinegar manufacturer bought the recipe and all branding for from Garten for £150 (and the settlement of some unpaid debts), and the rest, as they say, is history.
The sauce caught on quickly. HP's biggest UK rival, Daddies, began production in 1904, and has also grown in popularity. In the 1960’s and 70's many referred to the condiment as “Wilson’s Gravy” after then PM Harold Wilson’s wife quipped to a journalist that her husband would "drown everything in HP Sauce". Interestingly, Wilson preferred Worcestershire Sauce, but he felt having a reputation for liking HP portrayed him as more of a “man of the people”. If one were to take a quick look at #HPSauce on Instagram, one would quickly find both the overwhelming straightforwardness of the dishes it goes with and the varied internationalism of its admirers. Brown sauce is undoubtedly one of the most highly appreciated and sought after expat foods.
While HP is no longer made in Britain, (there was some public protest when it was announced that production was moving to the Netherlands), HP remains entirely British in spirit: described as "The Official Sauce of Great Britain" in a former marketing campaign, this condiment demonstrates that we Brits love hearty flavours and layered complexity (just look at all the curries we tuck into!). After all, is there anything better than a full English breakfast, with a healthy dose of brown sauce?