Along with ketchup and mustard, worcestershire sauce is part of the old guard of bottled condiments that line American refrigerator shelves. We add it to marinades, gravy, barbecue sauces, even cocktails, and its savory, sweet, and earthy properties are known to make meat dishes—including Shepherd’s Pie–taste meatier. But what is worcestershire sauce, exactly? According to the wrapper of a Lea & Perrins bottle I recently examined, the ingredients include vinegar, molasses, chiles, tamarind, and anchovies. Surprised by the last, I did a little research and discovered an interesting, if debatable, backstory.
In the 1830s, a retired British colonial governor named Lord Sandys returned to England from the Indian state of Bengal, carrying with him a recipe for a savory condiment consisting of anchovies fermented in brine. He asked a pair of chemists based in the town of Worcester, John Wheeley Lea and William Henry Perrins, to try to replicate the mixture on a larger scale; their experiments allegedly yielded unappealing results. But instead of tossing it out, Lea and Perrins bottled the brew and left it in a basement. On opening the bottles two years later and bravely venturing a taste, they discovered that the resulting fermentation had produced a pleasantly flavored sauce. A patent was summarily obtained, and the rest is tangy history.