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A cold, thick, dark, table pouring sauce of finely pureed fruit, vinegar and sharp spices.
English Brown Sauce has a highly distinctively flavour, which comes, usually, from tamarinds, an African fruit, but occasionally from combinations which give a similar flavour such as cloves or mace with dates. Served with any meal, brown sauce is the last everyday remnant of ancient fruit-and-spice sauces such as Rapey or Civey.
The first reference we find to a cold bottled tamarind sauce is in advertisements for the JG Driver Company in the early 20th Century...
Liverpool Echo - Thursday 16 July 1914
The most noted brown sauce brand was developed by a Nottingham grocer Frederick Gibson Garton in 1896, claiming to have taken its name 'HP' from the Houses of Parliament, where it was alleged to be popular. However, an alternative, and entirely uncoroborated, story suggests that the HP was one Harry Palmer, inventor of "Harry Palmer's Famous Epsom Sauce" the receipt for which he was forced to sell to Garton to cover gambling debts, though the nearest we've ever found to that story was a racehorse of the 1890's called 'Epsom Sauce'.
Advertising poster for Garton's HP Sauce
Image: Walsall Museum http://blackcountryhistory.org
In 1903 Garton sold the receipt and brand name for £150 to Edwin Moore of the Midlands Vinegar Company, which eventually became HP Foods. The company was later sold to Danone and in 2005 to Heinz who closed the Aston, Birmingham plant to manufacture HP sauce in Elst in the Netherlands. This led the Labour MP Khalid Mahmood to brandish a bottle of HP Sauce during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons in protest. He also made reference to the sauce's supposed popularity with the former Prime Minister Harold Wilson during whose time it was claimed that HP came to be known as 'Wilson's Gravy'.
A passable version can be made from 2lb apples, 1lb prunes, 1lb tamarinds cooked with ginger, nutmeg, allspice, Cayenne pepper and pureed with 1lb of sugar, 3 pints malt vinegar.
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