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."
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.