Friday 14 October 2011

There is Worcestershire Sauce. And there is Worcestershire Sauce Special Edition

If you thought the attempt to create a premium version of Marmite with Marmite XO was unexpected, then check this out. Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce now comes in a luxury version called Worcestershire Sauce Special Edition. (In what sense a sauce can come in an “edition” I do not know. It hasn’t exactly been “edited”.)

Like Marmite XO, the bottle of the new version is larger and darker than the standard version, though not quite as weightily opulent as the black and gold makeover given to the pot that the yeasty paste comes in, with its suggestion of the decadence of a Roman Emperor, or perhaps a slightly scaled down version of Napoleon’s tomb in Les Invalides. The label on the Lea & Perrins basic sauce bottle is already dark brown and orange with gold details, and the SE mostly just adds a lot more gold. But the bottle itself has gone from clear to frosted, opaque dark brown—as if it is just not safe for mortal eyes to gaze upon the wondrous liquid inside.

Like Marmite XO, Worcestershire Sauce SE has been lovingly blended for a fuller flavour and aged for longer: normal Worcestershire Sauce is kept for 18 months, but this stuff matures for “up to” two years. Like the Marmite, it also comes with a hefty price tag, in this case £3.35. (But then it comes in a 290ml bottle, almost double the size of a normal bottle, which sells for around £1.57 for 150ml, so the price difference is not actually significant. One would have though that such a precious tincture would actually come in smaller bottles than normal, but perhaps the manufacturers know that anyone likely to buy this product is probably some sort of addict who puts Worcestershire Sauce on everything that passes his lips.)

Apparently the sauce was created in the 1830s by Worcester chemists John Wheeley Lea* and William Henry Perrins at the behest of local Lord Sandys who wanted to revisit exciting tastes he had encountered on his travels to Bengal. The story goes that the two boffins were not very happy with their concoction, and just put the barrels aside and forgot about them. It was only when they rediscovered the experiment some months later that they found it had mellowed into the murky sweet-sour-salt blast that we know and love today. The label proudly claims that it “Brings food alive!” I don’t think I actually want the food on my plate to be brought to life: mealtimes would become quite traumatic if you had to chase your sausages around the room as they begged for mercy.

As usual the precise recipe is a closely guarded secret, but the ingredients in the Standard Edition are listed in this order: Malt vinegar (from barley), spirit vinegar, molasses, sugar, salt, anchovies, tamarind extract, onions, garlic, spice, flavouring. The Special Edition contains the same ingredients but in different proportions: Malt vinegar (from barley), molasses, spirit vinegar, sugar, salt, onions, tamarind extract, anchovies, garlic, spice, flavourings.

When I compared Marmite and Marmite XO I initially thought I could taste the distinct flavour of the new spread, but when I tasted them blind I eventually had to concede that I just couldn’t tell the two apart. Would I find the same with the tangy nectar from Messrs Lea and Perrins?

To look at they are pretty much impossible to distinguish (see photo below). But tasted neat—admittedly an odd thing to do—I believe there is a difference. Regular Worcestershire Sauce has a nose of caramel, gravy and fresh sawdust, plus an Angostura-like aromatic spiciness and a strong waft of oranges—like a crate (a wooden crate) of oranges that has been boiled right down into tar. This profile continues on to the palate, where it is joined by salt, molasses and a pepper heat.

The SE version essentially follows the same profile but is indeed more intensely flavoured. But on top of that I would say there is also a pronounced lime flavour which I don’t really detect (at least not to the same degree) in the original.

Of course there is a mixological significance to all of this, because Worcestershire Sauce is an important ingredient in a Bloody Mary, and related drinks like the Red Snapper, Bloody Maria, Bloody Caesar, etc. So I knocked up a couple of Red Snappers using Master of Malt’s curious Bathtub gin:

Red Snapper
2 shots gin
4 shots tomato juice
½ shot lemon juice
7 drops Tabasco sauce
4 dashes Worcestershire Sauce
Pinch of celery salt
Freshly ground black pepper

In case you can't tell, that's the SE on the left and original on the right
One drink was made with original Lea & Perrins, the other with the SE. Any difference? Actually, yes. Of course it is hard to know how much it has to do with subtle differences of proportion in the drinks, but it did seem to have a bit more presence and that limey edge that I detected neat (and which presumably comes from the tamarind). But at the same time I wonder if one could achieve much the same effect by just using more of the sauce in your recipe.

If you’re a Worcestershire Sauce fan and fancy the improved efficiency of a more concentrated dose, or tend to use the product in a way that showcases its subtleties (erm…) then give the SE a try. After all, who knows how long it will be around.**

* What kind of a parent calls their child Wheeley? Or perhaps it was just a nickname he picked from his BMXing days.
** I wouldn’t be surprised if someone buys up a batch and decides to barrel age it even further to see what happens. Years from now VIPs will be invited to gala events where guests are able to taste a rare bottle of the ethereal 2011 vintage…

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