Henderson’s Relish: The South Yorkshire rival to Worcestershire sauce
Ian Packham shares the story of how a plucky Sheffield staple, Henderson's Relish, is taking the world by storm
Tall, dark and unarguably alluring. Family-orientated, proudly from South Yorkshire and with a head that's firmly screwed on. There are worse dating profiles.
"Family-orientated, proudly from South Yorkshire and with a head that's firmly screwed on"
Add to that a long dalliance with veganism, an awareness of social responsibilities, and a near cult status among locally-born celebrities, and, as the people of Sheffield have demonstrated for close to 140 years, you’ve got yourself a keeper.
Henderson’s Relish…or Hendo’s
It’s no exaggeration to say that Henderson’s Relish, better known simply as Hendo’s, is a Sheffield institution. You’ll barely pass a dining table in the Steel City without spotting a bottle.
Yet this richly-flavoured black liquid remains a mystery to much of the rest of the UK. It’s nearest rival in looks and taste, Worcestershire sauce, grabs most of the attention, despite Hendo’s now being stocked nationwide and on store shelves as far away as the city of Kagoshima, Japan.
Battle of the sauces
Given its status as a Sheffield icon, it’s perhaps ironic that the sauce’s creator, Henry Henderson, was born in Nottinghamshire. But by 1885, at the age of 35, Henry was earning his living as a wholesale spice merchant in a rapidly-growing Sheffield. His job put the exotic ingredients, including the tamarind and cloves which still make the taste of Hendo’s unmistakeable, within easy reach.
If concocting this new table sauce was easy, selling it was anything but. This was a period when dozens of locally-made sauces existed across the UK and fought for the attention of shoppers in a way we more closely associate with the late 20th century, rather than a hundred years before.
"If concocting this new table sauce was easy, selling it was anything but"
Nearby Leeds had the similarly sounding Yorkshire Relish, while Cock’s Reading Sauce was so well-known it makes an appearance in Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne, published for the first time in book form in 1873.
And that’s before we mention what Matt Davies, Henderson’s general manager for seven years, describes as “that other stuff”—Lea and Perrins Worcestershire Sauce. It had already been around for almost 50 years when the first customers of Henry Henderson were bringing round their own bottles for filling with his relish.
Strong and northern
Today, only three people know the precise quantity of each ingredient needed to make the relish distinct enough to have shoppers on four continents (and soon the fifth) reaching for this black and orange label over another of not dissimilar design but significantly more advertising clout.
Until very recently, mentioning Henderson’s Relish in Rotherham, just seven miles from the company’s former production line in a Victorian-era two storey house a stone’s throw from central Sheffield, would have had people looking at you in the same way they would had you suggested moving to Lancashire or going to the moon for the day.
Henderson’s is “stronger today than probably ever before” says Matt Davies, and he’s not talking about the sauce’s flavour profile, which has remained almost untouched for the last century.
The company’s strength is in no small part to Sheffield being “a one sauce town” according to Mark Dawson in his book A Saucy Tale: The History of Henderson’s Relish. Keeping production within the city when so many other companies have left forms a continuous connection with generations of Sheffielders.
Half-empty bottles sitting on the countertops of pretty much all the city’s fish and chip shops in the post-war era undoubtedly helped secure the position of the relish as a much-loved institution into the modern day.
Mark of quality
At this time of small independent grocers, rather than national supermarket chains, Dawson calculates that Henderson’s workers corked and wax-sealed “enough relish for every man, woman and child in Sheffield to have over half a pint each” a year.
“People think it tastes really good,” says Davies, close to matter-of-factly. But equally, he thinks there’s more to it than that alone. “There’s a pride people feel. When they think of Henderson’s, they think of it being theirs. Sheffield is a city of manufacturers and making. We prefer things made in Sheffield than made overseas. It’s a sign of quality. That’s the nub of the brand really.”
"As Hendo’s proves, you can take the sauce out of Yorkshire, but you can’t take Yorkshire out of the sauce"
Being on the right side of trends has got to help too. “It’s cool to like Hendo’s,” concludes Dawson in A Saucy Tale. And who can argue with that when you’ve got everyone from Arctic Monkeys drummer Matt Helders singing its praises, to BAFTA-winning actor Sean Bean reputedly going as far as buying nine litres on hearing a rumour the factory was set to permanently close.
It’s a brand which is “surviving and evolving like Sheffield is as a city,” says Davies, who has lived in Sheffield for 30 years. “It survives because it’s got the right values.” Plus, he adds, “We’re significantly better value for the consumer.”
After all, as Hendo’s proves, you can take the sauce out of Yorkshire and as far afield as Japan, but you can’t take Yorkshire out of the sauce.
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