Why salad cream, a British oddity, is better than mayonnaise

There are one or two things that are difficult to confess, things that can alienate good friends, change relationships forever. You know the kind of thing — recreational nose-picking, organising your bookshelf by colour, performing satanic rituals in your garage. If it floats your boat, that’s cool, but you might not want to mention it in front of people.

This, I regret to say, is how I have been made to feel about salad cream, the pale, yellowish condiment most commonly used as salad dressing and sandwich spread. I love the stuff, but people I care about won’t have it in the house. It’s been regarded as irredeemably naff ever since our parents’ generation decided it was a poor man’s substitute for mayonnaise.

I should be very clear from the beginning that I’m not a “guilty pleasures” sort of person. Pleasure is pleasure in my book. If you enjoy something, then “own” it. So, I want to reclaim it, reappropriate it. I want to Take Back Salad Cream.

I think the reason I suddenly feel the urge to take up the tattered, yellowish banner is a bout of hospital food. Though most complain about it, NHS food production is a minor miracle. Thousands of people fed every day, from every corner of society, with every kind of taste. Complex dietary requirements are met and ridiculously high levels of hygiene are mandatory, so there are compromises.

If there is to be salad in hospital, and God knows it’s needed, it has to be cheap and tough enough to stand up to sterilisation. I’m sure there are hospitals where chefs will knock up frisée aux lardons and a poached egg, but in an NHS side ward, you grow to love the little yellow sachets. Like an embarrassing number of our national culinary treasures, salad cream is a sovereign aid to the consumption of difficult foods.

Many years ago when I worked in advertising, I was publicly dressed down by a superior for sneering at another popular proprietary sauce. (God, I was an insufferable little prig.) “Why do you think billions of bottles of what you just called ‘muck’ are sold all over the world, every year? Is it because it tastes disgusting? Or maybe you think all those people are stupid. The ‘general public’, over the last hundred years, are a focus group you couldn’t even dream of putting together. Listen to them.”

It is true that the recent history of salad cream has been undistinguished. During the second world war, with ketchup unavailable, UK-produced salad cream became popular for adding some kind of zest to dull rations. As a result, it became tarred with the same undiscriminating brush as tinned snoek and powdered egg. It was associated with poverty and desperation, all smog, popping gas rings and misery. And the food combinations it gave us would be mostly unconscionable today. Hard boiled eggs and salad cream do not amount to oeufs mayonnaise.

Actually, they amount to something better.

Hard boil half a dozen eggs, cool, peel, halve and remove the yolks. Mash the yolks with salad cream, a splash of Worcestershire sauce, a pinch of curry powder and some chopped chives, then pipe the mixture back into the half whites. You could serve this at your next dinner party and claim it as ironic wit if you’re caught, but I bet you won’t have to. Every time I’ve done this, guests claw at the plate in unbridled greed and nobody ever pauses to ask.

The rot really set in in the early 1990s. As we became a generation of “foodies”, we suddenly knew enough to shun naff bottled sauces and salad cream sales tanked. Though please, let’s not kid ourselves we were all knocking up mayo from scratch. No, a generation of Delias and Nigellas made the American standard Hellmann’s the ne plus ultra. Funny, isn’t it? Do you remember when there was something so cool, so effortlessly transatlantic about a glass jar of Hellmann’s in the fridge door? Not any more. Now we reach for a plastic squeeze bottle, flip a lid and hose it on like the gustatory moisturiser it is.

There’s an old foodie joke: people think Pret A Manger is a sandwich chain, but it’s much cleverer than that — it’s a mayo manufacturer with imagination. Mayonnaise has become an automatic sandwich component that denies us butter. Nobody goes into a high-street sandwich bar and says “hold the mayo” any more.

But the glory of salad cream is that it’s not bland and neutral like mayonnaise. The predominant flavours — mustard and vinegar — are grown-up and sophisticated. Mustard is complex and interesting. British food has traditionally lacked “sour”, so a skew toward vinegar is exciting. A French-trained chef would refer to it as a gastrique; a hipster might think of fashionable pickling. Meanwhile, the ­go-ahead, bleeding-edge food fashionistas are raving about Kewpie, a Japanese mayonnaise with a more pronounced mustard flavour, extra creaminess and the addition of a substantial belt of MSG. Salad cream in all but name. How dare they sneer.

The funny thing is that Salad Cream used to be posh. Oh yes. You’re out there thinking it’s something a brickie might squirt on his ham and cheese bap, but in its original form it would have been far more at home in one of those Merchant Ivory, lacy and soft-focused summer picnics. Lucy Honeychurch would have loved it.

Most people describe salad cream as “like mayonnaise but more mustardy”, with a strong vinegar sharpness and a marked sweetness to balance. And they’d be right. That tells you pretty much all you need to know about any recipe apart from the last ingredient (the clue’s in the name): cream. Yes, that’s correct, much of the oil you might expect to find in a mayonnaise is replaced with delicious dairy.

My 1907 edition of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management offers a recipe that begins with hard boiled egg yolks and ends with, God be praised, evaporated milk, and there was no way on earth she was going to waste it on the gardener’s corned-beef sandwich. Several other recipes involve flour and require gentle cooking, so the stiffness comes from the eggs setting and the starch thickening — a very classy technique, almost hollandaise. It’s not surprising that today almost any commercial salad cream will have less than half the fat of mayonnaise.

Heinz was the first company to mass-produce the stuff successfully. In 1905, Charles Hellen, originally the company’s Boston branch manager, was picked to run the new English division. He must have been bored rigid by American mayonnaise because he took eight years to develop salad cream, the first Heinz product solely for the British market. It was made by hand in a factory in Harlesden. More than 2,000 jars a day, hand-packed in straw-lined barrels for delivery to discerning grocers and thence the gentry. This was seriously aspirational stuff. In 1951, Heinz was granted a royal warrant, supplying royal households across the UK.

In Australia and New Zealand, there is still much love for the dressing that dare not speak its name and it’s imported in reassuringly stupendous quantities. It’s revered in Kenya and Thailand almost as much as it is rudely ignored in its own country.

In Cameroon, Ghana and Nigeria there’s a tradition of massively complex composed vegetable salads with a salad cream, but they don’t go for the shop- bought stuff quite as much. A proper salad cream is made from regular mayo, with the flavours bumped up with vinegar and mustard and the laudably Beetonesque addition of evaporated milk.

Perhaps most importantly, we should address the prawn cocktail. Americans make their cocktail sauce out of ketchup and horseradish and I’m sure it makes them very happy. Here, many people start their Marie-Rose sauce with mayo and tomato purée. They fail. Then they realise that they have to swallow their pride and use ketchup, thus attenuating their disappointment. But until they dump the mayo for salad cream — a venial sin compounded by a mortal one — they cannot experience joy.

In truth, the minute you begin to unpack salad cream, you cannot but scorn mayonnaise. “Neutral vegetable oil”, stiffened by egg? Doesn’t that worry you even the tiniest bit? Neutral oil is what you use to fry chips. There might be some flavour in there, but you need to believe in homeopathy. Philosophically indistinguishable from margarine. No wonder it’s been relegated to sandwich lube.

So come on. Let’s make some proper salad cream. You’ll need a bowl and one of those little “miracle” whisks. I know Julia Child collected balloon whisks and Fanny Cradock brandished one like a monstrance, but they’re unreliable. The little springy numbers guarantee your sauce won’t split. Take two free-range egg yolks, 15g of English mustard powder and 15g of plain flour and whisk together.

In a small saucepan, dissolve 20g sugar in 100g of apple cider vinegar and reduce to half. Let the vinegar cool then pour into the bowl and whisk together over a double boiler. Once things have thickened to something like custard, whisk in 120g of cold double cream. Season with salt, white pepper and lemon juice if you feel frisky. Serve it over steamed asparagus or the traditional English summer salad.

No. I’ll brook no argument on this. Like a French aïoli monstre, where the limp veg, pallid meat and reconstituted fish are there only to highlight the glory of the sauce, the English salad must be dull, the perfect canvas for the perfect salad cream.

We must find proper soft head lettuce. Not little gem, not romaine, not iceberg. In fact, no brand of lettuce. That fluorescent green stuff your grandad used to grow with big soft leaves and absolutely no element of watery “crispness”. Where the hell did we ever get that idea? Pick off the slugs and tear into your bowl. The lettuce. Not the slugs.

A couple of tomatoes will help, but they can’t be from a supermarket. I know. It’s difficult. With modern farming, Mediterranean-style tomatoes are “in season” all year, without having to come from the continent, or indeed ever having touched soil. While a boon, they are not for us. The tomatoes we need are in season for a week. You will have fought half the year to bring them to the point of perfection and there will only be four fruits, even though you planted 12 plants. Cut them into quarters.

Half a dozen slices of cucumber are a legal requirement, plus two hard boiled eggs, with a grey rim around the yolk. Of course we can cook them so they’re still ever so slightly runny in the middle, but that would be to attract too much attention to the egg. Besides, they’ve got to be sliced, not halved, in one of those slicing thingamies that look like a combination cheese-wire harp and mousetrap.

For similar reasons, no beetroot; too bright. No herbs; too much flavour. No croutons, bacon, “superfood sprinkles” or chopped chives. Nothing must distract. Arrange in a bowl with the salad cream dolloped liberally over the top. The art of eating it lies in not “tossing” the salad but by languidly trailing the ingredients through the cream on their way to your lips.

We’ll eat on the terrace. You’ll need a soft-focus filter, a hat and a floor-length broderie anglaise tea gown with leg-of-mutton sleeves and a stand-up collar. Well, I will. You can wear what you like.

Tim Hayward is the winner of best food writer at the Fortnum & Mason Food & Drink Awards 2022

Follow Tim on Twitter @TimHayward and email him at [email protected]

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