PETER FROST has a gripe. A decade ago 125 HP Sauce-makers in Birmingham lost their jobs as production was moved abroad and with it part of a national identity was lost in a depressing globalised uniformity
ENGLAND has 60 different religions and only one sauce, said Voltaire. He was wrong of course but not that wrong.
Visit any British cafe and the chances are that the table will have a bottle of tomato ketchup and a bottle of HP sauce.
Only low-quality dives will have dodgy unbranded brown sauces, although a few dodgy cafe owners will have filled their HP-branded bottles with some unbranded jollop. Signs of this are faded but well scrubbed labels.
A few really upmarket eateries might have brown sauce and ketchup from a truly upmarket supplier like Tiptree of Essex — makers of James Bond’s favourite Little Scarlet strawberry jam.
However, anyone who joined the pickets from nearby Essex University during the epic miners’ strike will know that Tiptree smuggled in imported strikebreaking coal and so wouldn’t touch the stuff.
Three quarters of the brown sauce we slop onto our full English breakfast will be branded HP. And it will feature a picture of the Houses of Parliament on the red, white and blue patriotic label.
Take a closer look at that label and you will see that this most British of condiments is actually made by the US-based conglomerate Kraft Heinz and, worse, made in its factory in the Netherlands.
That wasn’t always the case. It is exactly a decade since the factory that had been making HP Sauce in Birmingham for a century was closed and more than 125 sauce-makers were thrown on the scrapheap like some squeezed and dried up tamarind pod.
They were victims of what would soon turn into a flood of the exportation of jobs that would become one of the ugly faces of globalisation.
The British Empire produced many exotic ingredients for British food. England’s reputation for bland food was largely unwarranted. Spices like pepper, turmeric, coriander, nutmeg and mace and many others were useful to hide the off-flavours of meat and vegetables long past their sell-by dates.
Add to those exotic fruits like mangoes, citrus fruits, dates and tamarind (below) and home-grown produce like grains, fruits, root vegetables and malt vinegars you had the ingredients for some really exotic, not to say, delicious sauces.
In Nottingham in 1895 grocer Frederick Gibson Garton took some of those ingredients and combined them into a secret recipe for a tasty and spicy rich and thick brown pouring sauce.
Garton called it HP because he had heard that a restaurant in the Houses of Parliament had begun serving brown sauce. Mistakenly, he thought it was his but in fact it was actually a rival sauce from Yorkshire.
Never mind, the totally inaccurate name has served it well for more than 120 years — that’s capitalism for you.
Garton registered the name HP Sauce in 1895 and later sold the recipe to the Midlands Vinegar Company in Birmingham in return for writing off a £150 debt. The company launched the sauce on a wider market in 1903 and it quickly became a hit.
Production moved to Ashton in Birmingham where it would be made for over a century.
As the factory grew so did Birmingham’s notorious motorway network and in later years a motorway actually bisected the factory and a pipeline had to be built to deliver vinegar from the vats to the sauce production line on the other side of the road.
Ownership of the brand and the factory passed from Midlands Vinegar to Smedley HP Foods, then to Imperial Tobacco and eventually French food giant Danone bought it for £199 million in 1988.
In 2005, Heinz purchased the parent company, HP Foods, from Danone for £440m, but only after the Office of Fair Trading referred the takeover to the Competition Commission.
Although for many of its early years the description on the label was in both English and French, HP Sauce was always an important icon of British life.
Poets like John Betjeman (above) and Phillip Larkin both mentioned the sauce by name in their works. Former Labour prime minister Harold Wilson (below) was accused by his wife Mary, herself no mean poet, of “drowning everything I serve him up in HP Sauce.” HP Sauce even became known as “Wilson’s gravy.”
In May 2006, Heinz announced plans to switch production of HP Sauce from Aston, Birmingham, to its European sauces facility in Elst, Netherlands, ironically only weeks after HP launched a campaign to “Save the proper British cafe.”
The announcement prompted a call to boycott Heinz products. Trade unions and local politicians criticised the move and the hypocrisy of HP still wanting to use the image of the British House of Commons on its bottles.
Birmingham Perry Barr Labour MP Khalid Mahmood brandished a bottle of HP Sauce during Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons as part of the protest.
The essential recipe for HP Sauce and its key ingredients, including tomatoes, malt and spirit vinegars, molasses, spices and even exotic tamarind, have not changed with the passage of time.
Now, in line with government health policy, Heinz is committed to reducing added salt in the sauce.
I thought it would be a good idea to round up this article with a few other amusing examples of staunchly British products being made in foreign lands.
I realised I would need to be careful if I wasn’t to end up sounding decidedly Ukip.
My search didn’t take long. I discovered one product obviously traditionally British to its roots. US food and chocolate giant Kraft had stolen it away from its natural home when it took over Cadburys and moved so much of their confectionery production from Bourneville in England’s West Midlands to a cheaper production plant in Wroclaw, Poland.
Then the irony struck me. So what was the product? Well it was actually Fry’s Turkish Delight.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star Friday 7 July 2017