Some foods attain cult status through mass popularity; others by dent of sheer infamy. The Gentlemen's Relish—a brutally salty, arcane, and totally idiosyncratic anchovy paste that has been made in exactly the same way since 1828—sits firm in the latter camp.
A dense, slate grey slab of spiced butter, it may boast a staggering (and, truth be told, near putrid) fishiness—not to mention gout inducing salt levels—but it speaks of faded colonial grandeur, serious Victorian boozing, and the often staggering gluttony of the 19th-century upper-class British palate like absolutely nothing else.
It is also, I should add, really good. Near narcotically delicious (should you like anchovies, that is; should you not, it must be truly unspeakable—hallucinatory, almost), its bracing salt lick tang is offset against a warming cayenne spice: a fusty, ruddy-faced kick.
My grandfather was genuinely sad when they finally adopted a plastic pot in the 1990s (as opposed to the beautifully ornate china pots they had used for well over 150 years) and, y'know, he wasn't the only one. Because The Gentlemen's Relish is a foodstuff to whom its adherents are faithfully, hopelessly, devoted. Like a link of Boudin sausage from a particular gas station in rural Louisiana or a perfectly prepared pastis in some chaotic Marseille side-street bar, The Gentlemen's Relish comes carries fierce loyalties and romance.
First produced in 1828 by an Englishmen called John Osborne who was living in Paris at the time, the relish (also known as 'Patum Peperum,' which roughly translates to 'paste of pepper') is made from a combination of butter, anchovies, and spices. The exact recipe remains a secret and the combination of ingredients were reportedly 'passed from father to son' (I know, I know…) until the company was sold to Elsenham Foods in 1971, where, today, it is said that 'just one' employee knows the recipe. The warning to 'use sparingly' adorns the tiny white tub and one should probably heed that; unless you want to wake up from clammy nightmares suffering mild kidney pain and a truly raging thirst, that is.
But why the righteous/suicidal salt levels? To put it in context, The Gentlemen's Relish belongs to the grand age of the Victorian 'savoury.' Essentially, a small and more often than not incredibly salty dish that would be served after the sweet course in upper class and colonial society, the savoury had a serious purpose. Namely, it got the diner ready for lots more booze.
Yes, they may very well have just have consumed a tsunami of claret but, well, that was ten minutes ago and everybody loves port, right? As iconic Victorian cookery writer Mrs Beeton so eloquently put it when discussing the system-strengthening benefits of (particularly) anchovy-based savouries, they 'enabled gentlemen at wine parties to enjoy their port with a redoubled gusto.'
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Evoking images of maroon-nosed old duffers swilling tawny port and vintage cognac in smoke-filled, leather-panelled clubs, The Gentlemen's Relish is thus firmly aligned with the golden age of the Victorian savoury and—when thought of as a tool to awaken jaded palates that had been long since sledge-hammered into submission by an excess of smoke and booze—we can imagine that it did the job admirably. Because make no mistake (and despite whatever British tabloids would have you believe): the present day is assuredly not the golden age of 'binge drinking'. In that respect, our Victorian cousins were lapping us.
Put simply, the amount of alcohol consumed was often foolhardy and brutal. Wine writer Ned Halley—in Absolute Corkers, his rollicking account of the often staggeringly excessive European wine culture of the past 300 odd years—tells of how drunkenness in the 18th and 19th centuries was by no means the stigma within 'public' (i.e., political) life that it now is. He tells of politicians who had to be literally propped up in the House of Commons to deliver speeches and also quotes prominent political diarist of the time Macauley, who was writing on 18th-century Prime Minster William Pitt the Younger (who reportedly drank six bottles of port a day): "He indulged too freely in wine, but it was very seldom that any indication of undue excess could be detected in his tones or gestures; and, in truth, two bottles of port will be little more to him than two dishes of tea."
This was the climate that The Gentlemen's Relish launched itself, then. A moorish savoury that kept people boozing and become an iconic symbol of culinary obstinance and belligerence.
Want to try a proper, old-school savoury that will have you reaching for the decanter after half a forkful? Try Scotch Woodcock. Spread a piece of toast with butter, then The Gentlemen's Relish; top with absurdly buttery scrambled eggs; top that with two anchovy fillets.
Embrace the salt, and pass the port.