How the Regency Got Ketchup

Ketchup, katchup, catchup or catsup. Regardless of how you spell or pronounce it, in the twenty-first century this spiced tomato sauce is so ubiquitous in homes and restaurants of all kinds that it is almost completely taken for granted. But more than three centuries ago, it was an exotic import into England from the Far East, and became all the rage among those who could afford this new luxury sauce. Of course, at that time, it was most definitely not made from tomatoes, which were believed to be extremely poisonous. Yet, within a century, just a few short years before the Regency began, a recipe was published which is quite similar to the standard formula for modern-day ketchup.

From Chinese fish entrails to a nightshade cousin, how ketchup came to Regency England …

The origins of this sauce reach all the way back to the middle of the sixth century, when the first recipe for kôechiap was recorded in China, in 544 A. D. But this was a recipe for a sauce made of the salted and fermented innards of several species of fish. Most scholars believe this was very similar to garum, the well-known fish sauce which was so popular in ancient Rome. Over a thousand years later, this pungent Chinese sauce was made from salted and fermented anchovies, sans intestines. This salty fish sauce had spread throughout southeast Asia over this period and had made its way to Malaysia, where it was known as kechap. In the seventeenth century, when the first British traders arrived in the region, many of them enjoyed this new sauce so much that they took it back to their homeland.

According to the online Oxford English Dictionary, the first use of the word "catchup" was in 1699, when it was described as "a high East-India Sauce." Also according to the OED, in 1711, the word "ketchup" was used in reference to a sauce which was imported from "Tonquin," which is part of modern-day northern Vietnam. These sauces kept very well, and could be shipped long distances without spoiling, making them an ideal commodity for trade. Though they were fairly costly, their exotic source made them very enticing to many in England. As demand increased, more and more of this ketchup was imported into Britain.

As the eighteenth century progressed, though fermented anchovy ketchup was still imported from southeast Asia, it was so expensive that many English cooks were experimenting with their own forms of spiced, pickled and/or fermented sauces. Most of these new sauces were called ketchup, with the qualifying name of the main ingredient used. A number of ingredients were used to make these sauces, including kidney beans, oysters, walnuts, and mushrooms. These sauces were made with any combination of pickling, salty brine, vinegar or wine along with the main ingredient. Some sources state that a sauce would only be called a ketchup if it contained vinegar. However, Hannah Glasse published a recipe for ketchup which included beer, anchovies, shallots and spices. Based on extant recipes, ketchups typically included some fermented liquid, not just vinegar, but beer, wine or soy sauce. Soy sauce had also come to Britain in the last decade of the seventeenth century. Soy sauce was still exotic enough in England that when it was used to make a ketchup, it was often included in the name of the ketchup. During the eighteenth century, all of these variations of ketchup were made at home, from published recipes or from recipes developed by the housewife or the family cook.

By the end of the eighteenth century, one of the most popular ketchups was made of fermented mushrooms. The mushrooms were broken up into small pieces and heavily salted. This mixture was stirred three or four times a day until the salt had fully dissolved and liquefied the mushrooms, which could take two or three days. Next, the liquid was gently boiled, strained through a hair sieve, and the strained liquid returned to the pot. Spices were added, typically allspice, whole black peppers, ginger and mustard-seed. Horseradish, chopped onions or shallots and often garlic were also added. This spiced mixture was simmered gently for some time while the surface was periodically skimmed to clarify the liquid. The fluid would be strained again, poured into bottles and allowed to cool. When the mushroom ketchup was completely cold, the bottles would be corked and the cork covered with a piece of bladder to fully seal them. The mushroom ketchup would keep for several months to a year. The resulting rich, dark sauce was usually used on meats, though it was sometimes also added to the gravy made from the meat juices. Mushroom ketchup is still made and sold today, with many of the same ingredients as those used in the eighteenth century.

Another popular ketchup was made from fermented green, unripe walnuts. This ketchup was usually made in the spring, when the walnuts were just about to ripen. One version of the recipe for walnut ketchup remains to us because it was recorded by Martha Lloyd, Jane Austen’s best friend. In the summer of 1809, Lloyd moved into the cottage in Chawton to live with Jane, Cassandra and Mrs. Austen. It is believed that she noted down the Austen family recipe for walnut ketchup while she was living with the Austen ladies at Chawton. Reportedly, walnut ketchup was Jane Austen’s favorite. Below is the recipe which Martha Lloyd recorded in her "household book."

Walnut Ketchup

Take green walnuts and pound them to a paste. Then put to every hundred two quarts of vinegar with a handful of salt. Put it altogether in an earthen pan keeping it stirring for eight days. Then squeeze through a coarse cloth and put it into a well lined saucepan, when it begins to boil skim it as long as any scum, rinse, and add to it some cloves, mace, sliced ginger, sliced nutmeg, Jamaica peppercorns, little horse radish with a few shallots. Let this have one boil up, then pour it into an earthen pan, and after it is cold bottle it up dividing the ingredients equal into each bottle.

The green walnut ketchup would have to be stored for at least a year once it was bottled in order to fully mature before it would be ready for use.

The tomato plant originated in Mexico, from where it was brought to Europe by the Spanish conquistadors in the sixteenth century. Some scholars believe it was brought back even earlier, in the fifteenth century, by Christopher Columbus. Though the fruit of the tomato is not poisonous, it is indeed a member of the nightshade family and for many years it was grown in Europe only as an ornamental plant. By the end of the sixteenth century, some species of tomatoes were being eaten in Spain and Italy. The tomato was grown in England by the end of the sixteenth century for ornamental purposes, but was still considered poisonous. Gradually, that attitude changed, and by the mid-eighteenth century, a number of species of tomatoes were grown across the country. By then, tomatoes were widely used in English cooking. They were particularly popular in soups and stews and as a garnish for more refined dishes.

By the turn of the nineteenth century, a few English cooks were using tomatoes to make a new kind of ketchup:   tomato ketchup, sometimes called tomato or tomata sauce. The first known recipe for this new spicy red ketchup was published in England, in 1804, by Alexander Hunter, a Scottish physician. This recipe appeared in his popular cookbook and medical compendium, Culina Famulatrix Medicinæ:   Or, Receipts in Modern Cookery, with a Medical Commentary, (scroll to page 158). This cookbook also includes a recipe for mock tomata sauce, for those who were not able to get real tomatoes. Hunter’s book went through several printings, and the tomata sauce recipe was always included in each new edition. Through the Regency, other recipes for tomato sauce, tomato ketchup or tomato soy (tomato ketchup made with soy sauce) began to appear, and tomato ketchup, so named to distinguish it from mushroom, oyster or walnut ketchup, was a popular condiment on many dinner tables.

The main differences between these home-made Regency tomato sauces and modern day commercially-produced ketchups is that they were of a much thinner consistency, often more highly spiced and they were seldom made with sugar or other sweeteners. During the latter half of the nineteenth century most commercially-made ketchups were thickened and sweetened, but the number and volume of the spices were usually reduced. Of course, those living during the Regency had no need of a thick tomato ketchup, since they also had no French fries. Then again, since everyone I know who lives in England today puts malt vinegar on their chips, the consistency of Regency ketchup would probably have been immaterial, even if there had been French fries in the early nineteenth century.

In addition to a plethora of ketchup recipes which survive from the Regency, a number of bottle tickets also survive from that era. Some of these bottle tickets carry only the word "ketchup" and its many spelling variations. But others include the name of the main ingredient, so that there are to be found oyster ketchup, walnut ketchup, mushroom ketchup and tomato ketchup bottle tickets, among others. These silver or porcelain labels were placed around the necks of ketchup bottles to identify their contents while they sat on Regency dining tables. Since all ketchups at this time were made at home, there would be no paper labels affixed to the bottles to identify their contents. These bottle tickets were particularly important in those households in which more than one kind of ketchup was served.

Despite the fact that ketchups were enjoyed in England for a full century before they were made with tomatoes in the early nineteenth century, it was the tomato version which became particularly popular during the Regency. Certainly other ketchups still had their proponents, such as Jane Austen, who particularly liked walnut ketchup, and there were many who enjoyed mushroom ketchup, especially with roasted meats. But it was tomato ketchup which was considered the most fashionable of all the ketchups during the Regency. And so, Dear Regency authors, there is no reason to deprive any of your characters of the use of tomato ketchup, for it was indeed available to them during the Regency.

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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18 Responses to How the Regency Got Ketchup

  1. From an expensive and exclusive condiment to being rather ‘plebby’ – how the social status of food changes! I would never dream of using tomato ketchup with chips, and my tastes with hotdogs runs to mustard in preference, but it does make a jolly good base for a quick bolognese. I would love to try walnut ketchup but my walnut tree stays stubbornly barren.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I do like my French fries slathered with ketchup, and, I like my hotdogs with both ketchup and mustard, but only the really yellow stuff. No Dijon or Grey Poupon on hotdogs, thank you! 😉 However, when I was in England, I did have chips with malt vinegar, and I found them very tasty!

      When I was little, I liked ketchup on scrambled eggs, and I still like it on grilled cheese sandwiches.

      I rinse out my nearly-empty ketchup bottles when I am making chili and dump it into the mix. But would never have thought of using it for bolognese.

      Sorry to hear about your uncooperative walnut tree. Not only are you missing out on the chance to make walnut ketchup, but they can be used for a powerful brown dye as well. Is your tree getting enough water? A co-worker had a pecan tree that did not put on nuts and he found out it was because it was not getting enough water. From what he said, nut trees need a lot of water to put on fruit.

      Regards,

      Kat

  2. I have to say, I’m not a tomato ketchup lover. Though I do like the curry ketchup in Germany. Tweeted and shared on FB.

  3. Reblogged this on Ella Quinn ~ Author and commented:
    Interesting post on ketchup.

  4. lizaoconnor says:

    Thanks for the reblog. Can you imagine the outrage if the hero asks his butler for more ketchup on his meat.
    I for one didn’t know ketchup had such a long history. I think I’ll let my characters argue over their favorite type, because I love outraging people.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      The Battle of the Ketchups! I love the concept! It could make for quite a lively and humoros scene.

      Another option for humor would be if someone mixed up the bottle tickets on the ketchup bottles in a household which served more than one. Most ketchup bottles were of glass, but from what I have seen, they were just as often colored as of transparent white glass. If they were colored, it would not be easy to determine the contents from just looking at the bottle, the bottle ticket would be necessary. Just imagine the uproar if someone who still believed that tomatoes were poisonous picked up a bottle with a mushroom ketchup label, only to have tomato ketchup come flowing out all over their food! And there were people who believed tomatoes were poisonous well into the 1830s.

      Thanks for stopping by.

      Regards,

      Kat

  5. conniefischer says:

    I really enjoyed reading how ketchup came about. However, please excuse me from the crowd that loves it. Ick! Not for me!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      You are, of course, excused. To each, his, or in this case, her own. I know some people who love it and others who hate it, with a wide ranges of other folks in between.

      I discovered in the course of my research that the best-selling ketchup in the US today is Heinz, which was first made in 1876. But I don’t particularly like it. I like Hunt’s ketchup much better. My brother likes Heinz, but my sisters like Hunt’s best. He thinks it is because Hunt’s is a little sweeter, and we all have a sweet tooth. 😉 I guess one’s taste, or lack thereof, for ketchup is a very individual thing.

      Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment.

      Regards,

      Kat

  6. elfahearn says:

    One of my favorite movies is “Meet Me in Saint Louis” starring Judy Garland. I watch it every year at Christmas, and the opening scene features the mother and cook making ketchup. When I saw the film as a kid, I couldn’t figure out why they didn’t just pick up a jar of Heniz at the grocery.

    As for condiment preferences, I’m easy. Heinz and any kind of mustard, but I’ve a fondness for the hot stuff.

    Great post as usual, Kat.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Thank you, I am glad you liked it. I remember that movie, too, but I didn’t think much of the fact that they were making ketchup, since my grandmother, who lived on a farm, had always made her own. Since I always thought her’s tasted the best, it made sense to me that other people would make their own, too.

      Regards,

      Kat

      • elfahearn says:

        Oh you lucky, lucky little girl! I remember my grandmother making Uncle Ben’s rice that was so salty I couldn’t eat it. She was thoroughly disgusted with me.

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          Oh, yes, I was very lucky. My grandmother was an excellent cook. But then, she had years of practice, since she began cooking, under her mother’s direction, when she was a young girl. By the time she was a teenager, she was cooking not only for the family, but for the farm hands as well.

          She made the best chocolate cake, and she hardly measured anything. She threw in quite a number of things one might not expect in a chocolate cake, for example, leftover cottage cheese, milk that was about to turn, and one morning, my cousin’s cereal and milk when he did not finish his breakfast. No matter what she put in it, it always tasted delicious. Especially with the chocolate fudge frosting she put on top. It was very dense, more fudge than frosting, but we all loved it. My aunt sat with Grandma one day and measured every ingredient she used in her chocolate cake and wrote it all down so we would have the recipe. I have made that cake a few times, and it is good, but somehow, not quite as good as Grandma’s was.

          =^..^=

  7. Food history is a great field of research. Thank you for this great post.
    Could it be possible that heros and heroines are able to eat French fries – with or without ketchup – if one sets the story more towards the end of the Regency? I found a source claiming that “in 1802, Thomas Jefferson had the White House chef, Frenchman Honoré Julien, prepare “potatoes served in the French manner” for a dinner party.” And another says “by 1813 ( …) the potato finally gained acceptance in Scotland, Holland, Austria, Switzerland, Germany and Italy.”
    So, that could sum up to a story like this:
    The hero – in diplomatic service in America – learned about French fries at the 1802 dinner party of Thomas Jefferson. Due to political changes he finds himself out off office when returning to England. He must make a living and decides to take a risk: Like the Frenchman Parmentier, he starts to champion the potato, but in Scotland. While searching for a business partner, he meets the headstrong heiress of a ketchup-maker. Though they find each other a pain in the neck, they quickly realize the chances in cooperating. Will they overcome the common prejudice that potatoes are food for pigs only and succeed in business? Will their business alliance develop into a deeper relationship? Things look well until a rich, but dubious American tradesman enters the scene and courts the heiress …

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      You are quite right that while in the White House, Thomas Jefferson did include a dish at a dinner which he described as “potatoes served in the French manner.” Most food historians agree they were deep-fried potatoes, though no one seems to be sure of the shape into which those particular potatoes were cut, or even if they had their skins on or off. But regardless of their shape, they were almost certainly the precursor to our modern French fries.

      However, there may be a difficulty with your French fry scenario. Potatoes were already fairly popular in northern England by the turn of the nineteenth century, so it would be a natural progression to introduce them into Scotland. And, as I recall, they were being grown in the lowlands by the Regency. I cannot remember the source, but I read somewhere there was a problem with growing them in the highlands. The difficulty is that all my research suggests that ketchup in general, and tomato ketchup in particular, was not manufactured commercially until the mid-nineteenth century at the earliest, so a ketchup heiress that early in the century would be quite a stretch.

      Then again, in fiction, one is allowed to take a few liberties with history. However, there is the fact that most people in England do not put ketchup on their “chips.” They use malt vinegar, which suggests that the English do not have a taste for the combination of tomatoes and potatoes. In light of that, your hero and heroine might have quite an uphill climb.

      Regards,

      Kat

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  9. Pingback: Ketchup comes from Chinese fish entrails - and other saucy bits

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