Unlike most devotees, my journey into the depths of Henderson's Relish, the murky, brown condiment produced in Sheffield since the 19th century, didn't begin around the family dinner table dousing sausage and mash with "Hendo's."
It started in reverse—one Saturday morning two years ago with a weekend supplement on my lap—when I read that Arctic Monkeys' drummer Matt Helders stocks up on this little-known sauce every time he returns to Sheffield.
It popped up again the following week. I tucked into a vegan Yorkshire toad in the hole at my local pub before realising, half-way through, that the gravy was Henderson's. It was tasty, and after one umami-infused bite, I knew I had to finish the whole plate.
But it wasn't anything like an awakening. It didn't, for instance, render me unable to talk about anything but Henderson's (the effect it can apparently have on Sean Bean) or make me offer to chain myself to the old factory building if it were ever under threat, as Sheffield-born musician Richard Hawley has also suggested.
While Henderson's has a hard flavour to pinpoint (it hasn't got the tang of Lea & Perrins or anything as dominating as tomato ketchup), it kind of just makes you want to eat more.
There are rumours of a secret recipe and some say it's impossible to buy outside of Sheffield, but in a world of online baskets and gargantuan dark stores, smuggling a bit of garlicky vinegar out of Yorkshire sounds preposterous.
"It's always been a loved product but I think it's become a cult product more recently because of people like Richard Hawley. In Sheffield, the music and arts scene is so important," explains Henderson's factory general manager Pat Byrne. "Henderson's has been there since 1883, but it's because of word of mouth, passed on over factories and fences, or passed on down the pubs. The cultural bit—the art and the music—has been more recent, so I put that down to it."
Henry Henderson, the father of Henderson's Relish, was an outsider. He trained as a miller, then as a druggist when he moved to Sheffield and finally became a commodities dealer, making batches of his relish at the back of his store, where people would come to have their bottles filled up. The company didn't change owners since 1940, when it was bought by Charles Hinksman. His family, the Freemans, still run the business today.
Although the Henderson's factory has a new home in Parkway, an industrial estate off Sheffield's ring road, the old factory at the edge of Sheffield University's campus grounds still bears the signage. The neon orange branding serves as a reminder to pick up a bottle and to many in the city, this will always be Henderson's ground.
Sheffield isn't the only place with such an attachment to its condiments. Texts as far back as 300 BC document the use of fermented pastes made from fish entrails, meat byproducts, and soybeans. The fish sauce, called "ge-thcup" or "koe-cheup" by speakers of the Southern Min dialect, was easy to store on long ocean voyages. It spread along trade routes to Indonesia and the Philippines, finally giving British traders a taste for the salty condiment by the early 1700s. They took samples home and promptly adapted the original recipe, and name, turning it into Worcestershire Sauce, mushroom catsup, and of course, the all-conquering tomato stuff.
"We have a long history of using sharp flavours in our food as a way of cutting through fatty or sweeter tastes," says food historian Annie Gray. "Mushroom catsup is a sort of precursor to Henderson's and Worcestershire sauce—it has the same umami back notes. It peps up cheese on toast, adds depth to gravy, and generally enhances everything it touches."
Back in Sheffield at the new Henderson's factory, it's finally time to see some relish getting made.
"Everything starts with vinegar," explains Byrne, as we stand staring at a wall stacked full of large containers.
Standing in the small factory with less than ten employees, I can't quite believe we've witnessed a vinegar mix pass from a bulk container to a 20-second production line and straight out onto a pallet. That's actually all there is to it.
"Although people in Sheffield will say there is a secret ingredient in the recipe, it's not possible, as you have to put everything on the bottle these days," says Byrne. "There are three items that go in. We know what they are, but we just don't know the mix. The Freeman family members come in every four months and they mix it. So we know what's in it, but we don't know how much."
Next door, he shows me the half-size bottles sold to cafes and restaurants, the labels that can be redesigned for wedding favours, and the litre bottles sold on an industrial scale. I ask if Henderson's has ever thought about doing 100 millilitre bottles to travel with or, you know, a casual keychain bottle size. They have, but the machine can't go down past 142 millilitre per serving.
Byrne is also keen to dispel the myth that Henderson's is only sold in Yorkshire, explaining that the sauce is also sold to shops in north Derbyshire and north Nottingham. For anyone patiently waiting for a delivery of unami in Devon, though, you might have to hold out. The area Henderson's targets remains pretty specific: Cumbria, Lancashire, Manchester, Tyneside, Yorkshire, Nottingham, and Derbyshire.
"That's enough, just to slowly seep out," Byrne tells me. "Going national, we'd have to make millions of bottles. It would have to be in a bottling park somewhere else and it wouldn't be Henderson's any more. The family want to keep the tradition, and we want to keep it as a local, heritage product. Most people in Sheffield feel they own Henderson's Relish."
It seems making something so everyday seem desirable is all about keeping it off the map. Henderson's has achieved this for everyone but the inhabitants of South Yorkshire, becoming as fierce a mascot for a city as any football stripes or celebrity.
Unlike the real ales, grass-fed butter, and sourdough that lead us to believe that recipes or individual components are as important as the end product itself, the story of Henderson's doesn't really take place in Parkway. It takes place in Sheffield, in the cafe kitchens that buy the stuff by the gallon, and the suitcases of the bands that can't be without a taste of home for more than a few weeks.
Back at Sheffield Station, I wait on the platform for my train back south, bottle of Henderson's in hand. Vinegar, a garlic blend, and tamarind—there's nothing special in those ingredients. But I realise the myth of Henderson's is because it is of a thousand everydays—hundreds of chippie teas, pies and mash, roast dinners, and Christmases.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in July 2015.