Bring out the Branston

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Old Branston ad
I’m sure you need a bit of Branston on that, Horace…

In a pub I asked what kind of sandwiches they had. ‘Ham and cheese,’ the man said. ‘Oh, yes please,’ I said. ‘Yes please what?’ he said. ‘Yes please, ham and cheese,’ I said, but with less confidence. ‘No, it’s ham or cheese,’ he explained. ‘You don’t do them both together?’ ‘No.’ ‘Oh,’ I said, surprised, then leaned towards him and in a low, confidential tone said: ‘Why not? Too flavourful?’ He stared at me. ‘I’ll have cheese then, please,’ I said contritely. When the sandwich came, the cheese was extravagantly shredded – I had never seen a dairy product distressed before serving – and accompanied by what I now know was Branston pickle, but what looked to me then like what you find when you stick your hand into a clogged sump. I nibbled it tentatively and was pleased to discover that it was delicious. Gradually it dawned on me that I had found a country that was wholly strange to me and yet somehow marvellous. It is a feeling that has never left me.

-Bill Bryson, The Road to Little Dribbling, Doubleday (Great Britain), 2015, pp. 19-20.

There’s the recipe above for Branston Pickle – the magic ingredient in a cheese and pickle sandwich which so entranced Bill Bryson. (Rutabaga is another name for swede, incidentally). The origin story for this delicacy tells that the recipe (more of less the same as the one above) was devised in in the Staffordshire village of Branston by a Mrs Graham and her daughters Evelyn and Ermentrude as they bottled winter vegetables from their garden. Evelyn was professionally involved in biological research and had access to ingredients which were exotic at the time, such as Indian gherkins and dates from Iran. The three women experimented, macerated and spiced and in 1922 Crosse & Blackwell purchased the recipe and put Branston Pickle into production.

There’s definitely a big element of truth in the tale but it often misses out the interesting fact that Crosse and Blackwell already had a factory in Branston (near Burton on Trent). Dating from 1915 the building had been intended for the manufacture of machine guns and machinery had been brought over from America for that purpose but factory was still only half-complete by the time the war ended.

Crosse and Blackwell acquired the site in 1920 with the aim of turning it into the ‘largest and best-equipped food preserving plant in the British Empire’. The year before the Graham ladies offered their recipe to the company it had also bought a farmhouse in the village which was used as a a hostel for single women working at the factory.

The story didn’t have a very happy ending for the folk of Branston as production at the new factory turned out to be uneconomic, and in 1925 Crosse and Blackwell moved production to a site in Bermondsey which remained in use until 1969. As a result the area suffered from large scale unemployment and it was reported that many local people were boycotting the product. (Branston Pickle is now produced in a factory in Bury St Edmunds).

The fine details of the Grahams’ recipe – according to Crosse and Blackwell unchanged since the 1920s – remain a secret. We know that vegetables, including swede, carrots, cauliflower and onions, are mixed into in a thick, sugary sauce (apple pulp appears on the ingredients label). Other manufacturers have made substantial efforts to replicate the taste and texture of Branston pickle but without success.

The internet abounds with recipes attempting to create Branston at home like this one on the BBC Good Food website. And like this one those efforts always fail whether because of texture, taste, or colour or perhaps because there is a little bit of magic in the original formula.

The Bring out the Branston slogan first appeared on British television over 50 years ago. The most recent version of the commercial appeared in 2023. The slogan is a bit more tuneful than it was in 1972 but the message is the same. A sandwich without Branston lacks lustre.

Even our American cousins seem to feel the same. At least if this New York Times piece from 2017 is to be believed:

And what is your lunch status, currently? Are you getting a wan spread of cold vegetables from the salad bar today, again, or planning on soup from the sad tureen, again? Tomorrow you could bring in Craig Claiborne’s classic tuna salad sandwich and be happy, or Melissa’s awesome Cheddar, cucumber and marmalade number, on pumpernickel. You’ll be ecstatic. (Try it with Branston pickle in place of the marmalade, if your market has an international section; it’s a British pickled chutney, sweet and salty at once.)

from New York Times 2017

I’ve never quite seen Branston pickle as a substitute for marmalade or indeed vice versa, but it takes all sorts. Anyway America and Australia are the pickle’s largest overseas markets, though high-fructose corn syrup is used in exports to the USA, while the Brits manage with traditional refined sugar. Apparently Branston is also big in Turkey and Singapore.

Branston Pickle is now produced in Bury St Edmunds, in Suffolk, and apparently we get through over 20 million jars of the stuff. It’s not surprising then that there was a spate of panic buying in November 2004 when a fire at the factory halted production and supermarket shortages over the Christmas season were a strong possibility. As usual there were Plenty of people were quick to exploit a misfortune. “Rare” jars of Branston Pickle soon appeared on Ebay. A 310g jar, costing 64p in supermarkets, was typically being offered from 99p-£1.50 while a 450g jar, then retailing at 90p, was offered for £1.50-£2.00.

I’m not sure what Mrs Graham and her daughters toiling away in their steamy kitchen would have made of that. I also have no idea what happened to them; whether they prospered as a result of selling their recipe or looked on sadly as others profited from their ingenuity. If anybody knows let me know. In the meantime, make yourself a cheese sandwich and Bring out the Branston!