For Christmas dinner I wanted to try something historical — besides the cookies, I mean, and other than a plum pudding, which nearly killed me the one time I tried to eat it after the full-on holiday feast. The centerpiece was roast beef (top sirloin, which is nearly as good as prime rib and about a third the price per pound of actual meat), and heaven knows people ate enough beef in the nineteenth century. What did they put on that beef? Well, how about Worcestershire sauce?
Eliza Leslie, in her monumental 1837 Directions for Cookery, offers recipes for four different “fish sauces” intended to flavor melted butter or gravy for all sorts of fish and meat: Scotch sauce, Quin’s sauce, Kitchener’s sauce, and Harvey’s sauce, all based on anchovy.
The usual way of eating these sauces is to pour a little on your plate, and mix it with the melted butter. They give flavour to fish that would otherwise be insipid, and are in general use at genteel tables. Two table-spoonfuls of any of these sauces may be added to the melted butter a minute before you take it from the fire. But if brought to table in bottles, the company can use it or omit it as they please. Eliza Leslie, Directions for Cookery, 10th ed. (Philadelphia: E. L. Carey & A. Hart., 1940 ), p. 171.
This was about the time that A-1 sauce was first made and that Lea & Perrins began selling their Worcestershire sauce — which, for those of you who think you don’t like anchovies, is also at bottom an anchovy sauce. At the time Leslie wrote, fish sauces were available bottled from grocers — in fact this section of the book is titled “Store Fish Sauces” — but I gather that, as was her tendency, she was sufficiently unimpressed with most of them to know how to make them herself.
I settled on the Scotch sauce, because two of the others required other prepared ingredients like mushroom ketchup or walnut pickle, and the fourth called for rather a lot of cayenne, which wasn’t what I was after. Here’s Leslie’s recipe:
Take fifteen anchovies, chop them fine, and steep them in vinegar for a week, keeping the vessel closely covered. Then put them into a pint of claret or port wine. Scrape fine a large stick of horseradish, and chop two onions, a handful of parsley, a tea-spoonful of the leaves of lemon-thyme, and two large peach leaves. Add a nutmeg, six or eight blades of mace, nine cloves, and a tea-spoonful of black pepper, all slightly pounded in a mortar. Put all these ingredients into a silver or block tin sauce-pan, or into an earthen pipkin, and add a few grains of cochineal to colour it. Pour in a large half pint of the best vinegar, and simmer it slowly till the bones of the anchovies are entirely dissolved.
Strain the liquor through a sieve, and when quite cold put it away for use in small bottles; the corks dipped in melted rosin, and well secured by pieces of leather tied closely over them. Fill each bottle quite full, as it will keep the better for leaving no vacancy.
This sauce will give a fine flavour to melted butter.
The technique is simple enough, but the ingredients were far from obvious; what I had to work with didn’t much resemble Leslie’s pantry. I did my best, and the result… well, it is pungent, complex, a delicious sauce. The flavor is stronger than that of bottled Worcestershire sauce — of course; practically all flavors seem to have been stronger in 1837 than today. These were the days when men were real men and condiments were real condiments. Your modern Worcestershire is mainly a sweet-and-sour affair; by contrast you can taste the anchovy in Leslie’s Scotch sauce, along with a good snootful of horseradish and a bouquet of other aromas.
In the end, good as it was, it wasn’t what I wanted for a really nice piece of beef. Only a few drops were enough for the sauce to draw attention to itself, and more than that overwhelmed the delicate flavor of the beef. I’m thinking oysters, though: a little Scotch sauce in some melted better on some very lightly steamed oysters. And huzzah, as they say.
What follows are my notes on ingredients — which really are the complicated part — and an adaptation for the modern kitchen. It’s written in the second person, as if you are actually going to make this stuff. We both know you won’t, of course, but you’re not going to make most of the stuff in those cookbooks you got for Christmas, so we’ll suspend our disbelief and plunge ahead.
If you do make it, I should note that the ingredients for this little experiment ran me a good fifteen bucks… for a pint of sauce. It’s a luxury item, you don’t need much to make an impact, it ought to keep in the fridge for a few months, and it’s Christmas. But it ain’t cheap, and you can bet your first-edition Virginia Housewife I will be finding some uses for this stuff in the weeks to come.
The most interesting ingredient is actually one that isn’t here: sugar. Bottled Worcestershire sauce contains corn syrup as well as raisins, and Emeril Lagasse’s recipe for Worcestershire calls for six cups of corn syrup and cane syrup in what ultimately makes 3 pints of sauce — which means that his Worcestershire sauce, which never struck me as especially sweet, is actually as sweet as pure corn syrup! But 1837 fell into a window of a few centuries after the (late medieval) time when sugar was so rare and prized that anyone who could afford it put it on practically everything, and before the (recent) time when sugar is so cheap that we put it on everything. As a result, Leslie’s sauce is more pungent and complex than modern commercial Worcestershire.
Leslie’s anchovies would have been, I assume, dried and packed in salt, hence the need to soak them. Salted anchovies are still best, but they’re expensive and hard to find, not worth the trouble (I thought) for an experimental recipe. Despite all the additional strong flavors, though, this is a fish sauce, and worth the best anchovies you can reasonably afford. (Though not, I think, the four-ounce jar for which Whole Foods wanted eighteen dollars.)
Anchovies packed in olive oil don’t need to be soaked, but I doubled the vinegar to make up for the missing soaking liquid and added a teaspoon of salt to the finished sauce. Drain jarred anchovies well before adding them to the pot; you don’t want the sauce to be oily.
Claret or port wine
Ruby port is the simplest thing to use here. Claret is hard to come by these days. Don’t use the cheapest in the store, because you’ll taste it in the finished sauce. But you’ll also taste a lot of other things, so don’t feel compelled to buy a nice bottle, either.
“Scrape fine a large stick of horseradish,” she says. You want fresh horseradish root, obviously, not that wilted musty stuff in the bottle. Most sticks from the grocery store are six to eight inches long, which seems plenty. Mine yielded a cup or so peeled and coarsely grated — coarse being fine enough, I think, since this is going to simmer for a couple of hours.
Ah, the ever-annoying “large” onion. How big were Leslie’s onions? Mine were enormous (see photo), so I used only one and a half. It’s all really to taste anyway.
It’s too late in the year for parsley from the garden, and I forgot to buy any. If I were to include parsley, for economy’s sake, I’d likely use the stems only and save the leaves for another purpose.
A good reason for trying this sauce, as opposed to any of Leslie’s other fish sauces, is that I have lemon thyme in the herb garden outside my front door, and much as I love its flavor I have trouble finding uses for it. (Strewn on fish is a good one.) Many women kept extensive herb gardens before the mid-nineteenth century, even in towns, and made daily use of them for both culinary and medicinal purposes. The available herbs varied with the family’s tastes and the season, but fresh or home-dried herbs would have been at hand all year, and in far greater variety (and of better quality) than we can get from grocery stores today.
Since you can’t buy lemon thyme from a grocery store, you can use fresh (“regular”) thyme instead, perhaps with a teaspoon or so of grated lemon zest. If you have an herb garden, though, try growing some lemon thyme or some other old varieties of thyme; there’s no point being bound to standards when you’re doing it yourself!
By the way: I detest stripping thyme leaves, so if I’m adding fresh thyme to anything that’s going to be strained, I throw the sprigs in stems and all.
Leslie called for peach leaves in pickles and puddings. I have no idea what sort of flavor they would give, but the choice (like that of lemon thyme) makes sense: if you had a peach tree, you had not only fruit but another herb. I don’t have a peach tree, but I do have a bay tree, so I substituted fresh bay leaves. Dry would do if that’s what you have. After all, there are two ways to strive for historical accuracy here: you can emulate Leslie herself by getting hold of exactly the ingredients she used, or you can emulate one of her readers by making reasonable substitutions when necessary.
These are more straightforward. The quantities may seem too great; they are not. I had to substitute two teaspoons of mace for whole blades, which I don’t have and can’t get except by mail-order. Do follow her instructions as best you can, though, and don’t use ground spices unless you have to, which will give a flavor both stronger and muddier. The spices should be cracked, not actually ground to a powder.
Cochineal is a red dye made from the bodies of insects, also conveniently called the cochineal. Until the last decades of the nineteenth century it was the only way of coloring foods red without adding flavor. If you want to emulate the red color of Leslie’s sauce you can add a few drops of red food coloring, but if you don’t mind the faintly purplish brown color that the sauce is naturally, I wouldn’t bother.
Finally the vinegar, which actually gave me the toughest decision. Leslie says to use “the best vinegar,” but what was that? Common household vinegar might be made of nearly anything, as Lydia Child explained:
It is poor economy to buy vinegar by the gallon. Buy a barrel, or half a barrel, of really strong vinegar, when you begin house-keeping. As you use it, fill the barrel with old cider, sour beer, or wine-settlings, &c., left in pitchers, decanters or tumblers; weak tea is likewise said to be good: nothing is hurtful which has a tolerable portion of spirit, or acidity. Lydia Maria Francis Child, The American Frugal Housewife (Boston: Carter and Hendee, 1830), p. 17.
That would not be the “best” vinegar. Leslie offered a few recipes for good homemade vinegar, including one from cider, but I’m guessing that what she considered best was her “white vinegar” made from whiskey:
White vinegar. — Put into a cask a mixture composed of five gallons of water, two gallons of whiskey, and a quart of strong yeast, stirring in two pounds of powdered charcoal. Place it where it will ferment properly, leaving the bung loose till the fermentation is over, but covering the hole slightly to keep out the dust and insects. At the end of four months draw it off, and you will have a fine vinegar, as clear and colourless as water. Directions for Cookery, p. 409.
Christmas dinner being considerably less than four months away, I settled on plain white distilled vinegar, but on reflection something like three parts white to one part cider vinegar might give a more historically accurate flavor.
Adaptation: Scotch Sauce
This adaptation makes about a pint of sauce. The ingredients take a bit of preparation, but the sauce can simmer largely unattended.
- 2 3.5-ounce jars anchovies in olive oil, drained
- 1 teaspoon peppercorns
- 9 cloves
- 1 whole nutmeg
- 2 teaspoons ground mace
- 2 bay leaves
- several sprigs fresh lemon thyme, or regular thyme plus a half-teaspoon grated lemon zest
- a handful of parsley sprigs, or stems only (optional)
- 1 6–8-inch stick horseradish root, peeled and grated
- 1½ to 2 large onions, chopped
- 2 cups ruby port
- 2 cups white vinegar, or 1½ cups white plus ½ cup cider vinegar
- 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
Chop the anchovies coarsely. Crack the whole spices in a mortar. Place all ingredients in a pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer about 2 hours, or until the mixture is reduced by about half and lightly coats the back of a spoon. Strain through a fine strainer. Add salt to taste. Cover tightly and store in the refrigerator.