Brown sauce – a short history

Some of my brown sauce

Some of my brown sauce

What could be more British than brown sauce on a bacon sandwich? So isn’t it a scandal that famous brands such as HP and Daddies are now owned by a bunch of Yanks, J J Heinz, and made in Holland? There is only one solution – make it yourself.

That’s what used to happen. Large households made their own sauces. Later, during the commercialisation of the High Street, sauces were brewed in each town by local manufacturers. HP began life in Nottinghamshire in the 1870s. Hammonds was made near Bradford and still gives its name to the Hammond Sauce Works Band although the factory has been pulled down. I think the sauce may still be available in Morrisons. OK started life in London in the late 1800s.

Gradually leading regional brands became national ones although sometimes they switched countries. Yorkshire Relish was established in Leeds as early as the 1830s and continues life in Donegal, Ireland, as YR Sauce in glass and plastic squeezy bottles.

Occasionally stories surface in the regional Press about ‘secret recipes’ being found in old factories although there isn’t much of a secret to the recipe, a combination of fruit, onion and spices cooked to a puree then thinned (but not too much) with vinegar and sweetened with sugar.

That doyenne of food writers Dorothy Hartley in her seminal work Food in England (1954) traces its origins to the shelters or cafes used by London cabmen in the mid-19th Century, each of which had its own version to pour on chops after a morning ‘pea souper.’

She gives a basic recipe as a pint of chopped shallots, clove of garlic, teaspoon each of salt and black pepper, tablespoon of sugar and mushroom ketchup boiled with water to a pulp. The café proprietor might add spices to his own preference. The mixture was then sieved, boiled again with a pint of vinegar and bottled.

This is very much the recipe I use today although the fruit is missing. I started making my own brown sauce because I found my wife’s HP sauce too thin, too sharp, too vinegary (and too American) and thought I could do better.

Luckily for me it was a fashion a few years ago for posh chefs to make their own brown sauce and I so particularly enjoyed the sauce at Cary Brown’s short-lived London Club restaurant on Surrey Street, Sheffield, that I acquired the recipe. I have no idea where Cary got it but I use it almost unchanged.

This is what you do. You need the following for 3-4 bottles of brown sauce.

450g cooking apples, peeled , cored and roughly chopped

110g dried prunes,

1 small onion, diced

400ml malt vinegar

1/2 tsp each of nutmeg, allspice, cayenne

1/4 tsp ground ginger

2tbspns sea salt

240g sugar

Put apples, prunes and onions in a pan, just cover with water bring to boil then simmer til soft. Blitz.

Return to cleaned pan, add rest of ingredients, boil them simmer until thickened to a sauce consistency. Adjust for sweetness or vinegar.

Allow to cool slightly then funnel into sterilised jars or bottles.

Now who would have thought there was so much history in a bottle of brown sauce?


About this blog

Yet another food blog? This one is based in Sheffield and is backed up by over a quarter of a century of writing about food and reviewing restaurants for the Sheffield Star.

Martin Dawes at work - eating in a restaurant

Martin Dawes at work – eating in a restaurant

The city and its surrounding area may not be gourmet nirvana but there is an awful lot that is good to eat here.

On The Star I used to have an expense account so it was not ultimately money from my own pocket which paid for some 1,400 dinners (and lunches and breakfasts) down the years. As I gave up reviewing in October 2015 it will be my own money now so reviews may not be as plentiful!

However I do enjoy eating out, cooking, foraging, pickling, preserving and discovering the history of food then writing about it so I shan’t run out of ideas.

And if you’d like to employ me and the missus on a ‘mystery diner’ basis I would be happy to help.

You can contact me at or or by phone on 07713 900 883.