I think it says a lot to the supposed culture of our – and I’m reading this phrase from the side of a bus, this is not the opinion of myself but rather that of a bus that just drove past – "great nation" that the inherent foods we produce and build our entire eating culture upon are fundamentally, to their very core, completely dry, and every one of them demands the addition of a prescribed condiment to wetten them up enough to choke them down our grand British necks.
So you have the fry-up, for instance – a puck of black pudding, some dry rinds of bacon, globules of sausages, fried bread – all of which needs ketchup, brown sauce and a pot of tea on the side to get it down you: the fried breakfast demands its wetness. The Yorkshire pudding, again, requires swathes of gravy to make it moist enough to wad down into something palatable. A scotch egg requires mustard. And, of course, the centrepiece: the Sunday roast, which in turn inspires the Christmas dinner – the Sunday roast the joggers to the Christmas dinner’s wedding dress.
For that reason, every single condiment is going to be on the table, and to that end every one of them needs to be ranked, immediately, from worst-to-best, to give you something to start a fight about with your family on Christmas Day. I genuinely, genuinely think there are some opinions about bread sauce in this piece that, if repeated in the correct tone of voice to a frail enough uncle, could cause him to have a rage heart attack and die. I truly believe that.
Dogshit sauce; bullshit sauce. The worst sauce of all the sauces. Bread sauce is the exact inverse of toast, taking the logic of "What if we made this bread crispier? Would it taste nicer?" and inverting it entirely. What if we made this bread entirely wet by dousing it with milk? Would it be fucking disgusting, then? And the answer to that is: yes.
Bread sauce is breadcrumbs mixed with milk and maybe there is an onion or some pepper in there. That’s it. The Lord’s most inelegant roux. A flavourless, bland punishment mash. I have never been to a Victorian prison, for various logistical reasons, but this is exactly what I imagine they serve up to them in there. “Come get your sauce!” some man with mutton chops and a fucking whip is yelling to the clanking prison yard. “Bread sauce!” Is it fresh, master? “No. No fresh sauce for bad boys.” Bread sauce is sick filth, sick white filth, and it doesn’t belong on a roast, it doesn’t belong in a bin, it belongs in a sewer, it belongs in hell –
I am disinclined to praise cranberry sauce too much because 1) it is fundamentally of the American tradition, and the slow creeping of cranberry sauce onto our good British roast plates is, for me, a bit like taking Halloween seriously or having proms, in that they are fundamental American practices which look awkward and wrong when enacted by clonking, inelegant Brits, but we do it anyway because we see people on long-running sitcoms do it, and, truly, are all of our behaviours now not just fundamentally inflected by all 236 episodes of Friends; 2) it’s basically putting jam on your dinner.
Like, fine: it does make turkey, a dry and horrible beast of a roast, taste slightly better. And it is crucial in a day-after leftover sandwich. But if I’ve been slaving over a roast for like a hundred hours – doing the timings, getting a spreadsheet together, making proper gravy, getting the roasties just right – and you just donk a massive ladle of fucking jam over the top of it, then we’re fighting. We’re going outside and taking our tops off and fighting.
Apple sauce is fine if you’re a baby and you still get food spooned into your mouth like a baby, and it’s OK enough as a side to pork, but essentially it’s still just a cold mush that constitutes the absolute worst thing you can do with an apple. You could have made a crumble with that or dipped it in toffee or something but no, you had to sieve it down into a thin puree and wad it like phlegm on your dinner. No.
I’ve long been fascinated with malt vinegar, and the totality of it: malt vinegar, as a condiment, has almost exactly one use, and that is "on chips". And yet, in this country, it’s held up as part of the On-Table Condiment Dynasty, one of the Big Five: salt, pepper, ketchup, mayonnaise, vinegar (you can substitute in mayonnaise for brown sauce if you are eating in a café or brunch spot rather than a pub). This, I think, reflects towards our national mood – the near-constant consumption of chips – and to a certain grimness within our cuisine. We love chips, adore chips, have a handful of chips on the side of everything: yet, also, we admit, chips need a thin brown wetness to truly make them delicious enough to eat, a chip is considered plain without it. On the tables of nearly every restaurant you have ever eaten in there’s been a bulbous, finger-smudged bottle of vinegar there; never running out, the vinegar timeless, the vinegar older than God. And we just accept it.
Malt vinegar, though, is a major component of mint sauce, and in that alchemy mint sauce taps into something that vinegar does, too: it, truly, only has one use, and that’s as a slash of contrast to lamb. Yes, yes, you can have it on a roast potato. Yes, yes, if a bit of it gets on your parsnip you’re not going to mind. But, fundamentally, mint sauce has a single function. You do not bring your mint sauce to a party involving beef.
But I quite like that. Mint sauce is a "fuck you". Yeah, you want lamb to taste nicer? I’m about, mate. You want literally anything else doing? Absolutely get to fuck. With lamb being the superior roast meat anyway – turkey, pork, beef, chicken, lamb is the correct order, before you start – mint sauce is a specialist, but a crucial one. Mint sauce is Rory Delap: it does one niche thing very, very well, and fuck all else at all, and is adored for it.
Weird one, piccalilli, because every component part of it is entirely gross – what’s that mate, a little yellow jar of pickled up bits of cauliflower, yeah? Sometimes there’s a green bean or a bit of cucumber in there? The name of the condiment somehow sounds like an obscure never-heard-since-the-50s racism your granddad shouts at the telly? And it’s served ice-cold from the fridge? – but somehow kind of works, in a way, a sharp-sour contrast to the more meat-and-potatoes meat and potatoes. Nobody’s pleased to see the piccalilli come out – nobody claps their hands with joy, or begs back to the kitchen if you’ve forgotten it – but when it’s there, it’s there, a dependable little yellow smudge that helps carrots taste nicer. You simply have to respect it.
Yeah we absolutely fuck with mustard. Mustard slaps. Mustard is the big muscly boy at the table, like one of them hard dogs. Mustard asks "do you like eating food?" and you say yeah, and then Mustard goes, "What if you were crying because of a VapoRub-type pain in a very specific part of your mouth? Would it taste better then?" And, for some reason, yes. French mustard is fine – sweeter, smoother, more elegant – but English mustard is the best, because it’s like getting punched in the face while you’re eating a bit of beef, and for some reason – I don’t understand the science behind it! – that is fantastic. Pleasure and pain. Mustard is basically BDSM for your dinner.
I would say gravy is a more important part of the Christmas dinner than, like, most of the other things on the plate: all the vegetables, definitely, and maybe even mashed potato, and it dicks all over Yorkshire pudding. The point is: year-round, gravy-from-a-tin is a simply fantastic sauce, brown and deep and strong and soothing, but at Christmas it’s always proper, and that makes it better: bits of cooked meat scraped from the bottom of the roasting pan, squashed roasted nubs of garlic in there, whole thing has to be drained through a sieve, probably a decent slosh or two of red wine in the mix, too. Christmas gravy is a very holy sauce. Christmas gravy has love and onion and muscle in it. We should sing songs to honour the Christmas gravy. We should light candles in gravy’s honour.
SPECIAL DESSERT SAUCE MENTION: BRANDY BUTTER
Brandy butter is not something you would have on your roast because you’re not a psychopath, but here’s the thing: it’s the only thing on this list which is truly, inescapably linked to Christmas. Gravy you can have every day. Mustard you can have on breakfast. Mint sauce, every Sunday of your life. But we only cream together brandy and butter and spread it on a mince pie during December, and that’s what makes it so special. Is brandy butter delicious? It’s the most delicious thing you can put into your mouth with a spoon. So why don’t we have it every day of the year? Because we simply have not earned a life of such decadence. Enjoy every scrap of brandy butter you are allowed to suck from the Christmas teat this year, friends. You cannot eat it again once January rolls around. Because you, simply, don’t deserve it.