What strange forces could have caused the crisis of which I write? Have the wells of malt vinegar (from barley) dried up? Has the tomato crop failed? Have the producers of molasses withdrawn their labour? Is spirit vinegar no longer available? Has glucose-fructose syrup been withdrawn from the market? Have the world’s date, sugar and salt mountains sunk? Is there no modified maize starch to be had, even on the black market? No rye flour, no tamarind extract, no spices, no onion extract? Has the supply of able-bodied Dutchmen and doughty Dutch women melted away like the snowpersons of yesteryear?
Perhaps we shall never know the answer to these questions, they merely concern the ingredients. What we do know, because the retailers and wholesalers tell us, is that the ambrosia conjured from this cornucopia of exotica – onion extract! how the nostrils quiver – by a secret process closely guarded for more than a century, is in short supply. HP Sauce is fast becoming scarce.
Of course, there will be those who nod in a meaningful manner, silently signalling the words “I told you so”. They will tell you they saw it coming all along, from the moment that HJ Heinz moved production from Birmingham to the Netherlands. Nothing wrong with the Dutch, mind you. A little too liberal in the consumption of marijuana, perhaps. But keen cyclists, good gardeners, and enthusiastic exponents of carnal delights. All the same, they are no match for stout-hearted Brummies.
For more than 100 years, the workers at HP’s factory in Aston kept the giant vats bubbling. From father to son, from mother to daughter, the sacred tradition of sauce making was handed down, a precious legacy that was British to its core. Through two world wars, through the grim years of the depression, through the wild sybaritic Sixties almost to the present day, the West Midlands HP Sauce factory poured forth its nectar. The clothed-cap workers of the early part of the 20th century were succeeded by today’s exciting generation of tattooed women, but the spiritual integrity of their endeavour lived on.
Then, with an awful suddenness, Heinz announced that the factory was “no longer viable” and that production was to be moved to Elst in the Netherlands, a town which by implication had viability at its core. The gazetteer tells us: “Elst is a village in the Dutch province of Gelderland, situated in the Betuwe, between the cities of Nijmegen and Arnhem. Elst has close to 20,000 inhabitants and is famous for its Roman temple, which is situated under the Saint Werenfried church. Since it is located between two major cities and along the highway A15, most inhabitants work elsewhere.”
Could that last item of information hold the clue we seek? Might it be that although the molasses, tamarind extract and tomatoes flow with unabated force through the factory gates of Elst, there are no workers to stir and bottle them? They are all smoking pot and canoodling by the canals of Nijmegen and Arnhem.
It’s a sad story, all too emblematic of our time. A quintessentially English creation, unique to our culture, and a symbol of our past manufacturing greatness is sold abroad, and a fragment of the tapestry that made us is lost for ever. The original recipe for HP Sauce was invented and developed by Frederick Gibson Garton, a grocer from Nottingham. No ordinary grocer was he, but a visionary. Way ahead of his time he saw that what English cuisine lacked was something to smother its taste. Who knows how this alchemist came to blend vinegar (from barley) with modified maize starch and hand-picked treasures from the spice islands to create a viscous brown substance which when poured over the British sausage made it edible? America may have had Edison and the Wright Brothers, but we had Frederick Gibson Garton, an inventor of genius.
And what became of the HP Tower, the Black Country landmark on Tower Road, Aston Cross, which might have been iconic were it not for the fact that every known thing that enjoys a fleeting public consciousness is iconic? Tragically, it has met a fate that again tells of our time. The HP sign that stood atop the building, a beacon that held out hope to all who ate in greasy spoons, now rests in an industrial museum. The factory has become Chancerygate Business Centre, which is one better than that modern horror, the visitor centre. How it avoided becoming a Tesco is a modern miracle.
Charlie Withers, director of Chancerygate, said: “We are pleased to confirm that the HP sign will be entrusted to a local museum for future generations to view and appreciate.” A sentiment that appropriately leaves a bad taste.