I had a sudden craving for brown sauce the other day. I’ve had quite a few recently: Flying Saucers, Pink Panthers and Womble Bars. But it was the egg and bacon roll that really got me.
It started when I visited the little cafe on the corner of a Central London Square by my workplace. It’s housed in a tiny, bright green Victorian lodge-like structure, something of an architectural curiosity. It serves black cab drivers mostly.
The friendly woman behind the counter had the longest fake eyelashes I’ve ever seen. The service reminded me of a bygone age, those old school British caffs that used to be everywhere. Every customer was ‘Luv’ or ‘Darlin’. There were no corporate prompts here. The big choice was deciding between sugar in your tea, and ketchup or brown sauce on your roll.
I can’t remember the last time I had brown sauce. Possibly a decade ago? These days I don’t have a weekend English breakfast. For a while it clung on as a ritualistic post-pub hangover cure, completed with a steaming cafetière of black coffee and a cigarette.
Brown sauce, a 19th Century English invention, is a kind of European sweet and sour sauce incorporating colonial inspired ingredients. It’s quintessentially British, like Lea & Perrins. Brown sauce is basically sugar, vinegar, salt, spices and tamarind. The original recipe was published, so it’s not a corporate secret like the Coca Cola formula.
HP Sauce apparently got its name from the initials of its inventor although it’s now associated with the Houses of Parliament. This Great British condiment is no longer manufactured in the UK, but Holland. It tastes slightly different to the HP of my memory. It seemed slightly thicker, now it’s runnier. It’s difficult to know if the manufacturer has opted for cheaper ingredients, or if my imagination is playing tricks on me.
The one thing that’s for sure, is that things rarely remain the same when production moves to a new factory. Newcastle Brown ale, no longer brewed in Newcastle, seems like a different drink. ‘Made in Vietnam’ Doctor Marten’s aren’t anything like the originals. You know something’s up when they call it ‘original’ or ‘classic’. Anything with those kinds of labels rarely are. The ‘Even better taste’ and ‘New improved flavour’ monikers are also giveaways. A small change in a brands recipe can completely alter the product. Some of these things are psychological, but when a favourite brand changes it feels like you’ve been conned. Don’t get me started on Kit Kats… When the chocolate changed (more cocoa they claimed) it ceased to be the ‘Kit Kat’ I knew. Lost recipes are gone forever, destined to become memories, nostalgia.
Tiptree’s brown sauce tastes more like the old HP I remember. It goes well with a variety of food, from fried English breakfast to Chinese stir fry. Daddies sauce, another British classic is made in Poland now. The Daddies recipe makes do without tamarind, and tastes inferior, having a slightly flowery taste (from the thickening agent).
The more ‘choice’ we get, the more things taste the same. It must be tempting for ‘brand owners’ to cut corners by reducing the expensive ingredients. The mainstream UK brewed lagers are no exception. There’s less distinction based on flavour. The perception in the ‘brand management’ world is that people are loyal to the brand and not the ingredients. For me, it’s all about the ingredients, and the reassuring familiarity of the flavour. UK brewed Beck’s has changed so much it tastes nothing like real ‘Becks’. Fever-Tree tonic water tastes like Schweppes tonic water used to.
I say go for the Tiptree brown sauce and the Fever-Tree tonic water. Some things in life demand change (improvement), while others just have to remain the same.
The problem with nostalgia is that the idea of something is often better than the actual thing. I tried some Flying Saucers yesterday and they tasted just as I remembered: they weren’t that great. I was left with a sense of disappointment, realising that my expectations are different to those of a seven-year-old. The Flying Saucers were the same, it was me that had changed.