My childhood had plenty of very English foods—crumpets, cucumber sandwiches, and beans on toast—but sandwich pickle slipped by me. It took me dating an Englishman while in college in India to be formally introduced.
This man had but one culinary skill (I wasn't far ahead, either, at the time)—turning out the perfect cheese and pickle sandwich. He had a precise, if painfully slow, manner about his efforts: a uniform amount of butter spread evenly on every slice, each cut of double Gloucester of ideal thickness, and finally, a perfectly apportioned dollop of Branston Pickle.
I had never tasted a sandwich quite like it. The sticky, acidic sauce and sweet, savory crunch set against a sharp, fatty cheese.... it was love at first bite. And, just like that, the cheese and pickle sandwich (to which I'd sometimes add a couple slices of tomato) became my no-cook lunch of choice. For years after, no trip to England was complete without bringing back a couple bottles of Branston, lovingly encased in sweatshirts and jeans.
Much like, say, HP Sauce or Marmite, Branston Pickle is a very common condiment in a British pantry, and is often served as part of that British pub standard, the "ploughman's lunch" (a picnic-style cold meal of bread, cheese, and assorted accompaniments including cold cuts, fruit, and pickle). With a history that dates back to 1922—and a recipe that has stayed the same since—Branston has very little competition in the space it occupies, selling over 17 million bottles a year.
To me, its devastating charm lies in a complex flavor profile of aged umaminess, which comes from the combination of sugar, date paste, applesauce, barley malt vinegar, and various spices. The rest of what goes into it reads much like a roasted veg dinner: carrots, rutabaga, onion, and cauliflower.
Those vegetables are what form the lumpy bits in the pickle that somehow always, as a friend once said, accumulate in the center of your sandwich. Unless you're eating the smooth version, which is perfect if you love the taste but "aren't keen on the lumps." There's also a small-chunk version, which comes with the bite but is more spreadable. Your pick of the three depends on what you use it for—and there are uses well beyond a sandwich.
I enjoy it with Triscuits and a sharp cheddar as much as I do plopped on an open-faced melted cheese toast. I've used it as a relish in deviled eggs, and even been known to spread it on a dosa—here's where the smooth version comes in handy. If you're inclined, remember, a little goes a long way. A few years ago, Branston started making chutneys, including a rather good caramelized onion chutney (alongside a bold Stilton, mmmm), but it could never take the place of sandwich pickle in my pantry.
When I moved to the U.S. seven years ago, I took a break from Branston for the first time since being introduced, unsure of where to find it. However, it was never far from my thoughts, even as I tried to replace it in my cheese sandwiches with date relish or meethi-nimbu (sweet lime) chutney.
Then one day, quite randomly, I stumbled upon a tiny slice of Britain in Brooklyn—a cozy store on the edge of Brooklyn Heights called Two for the Pot. There, amid a diverse inventory of coffees and loose-leaf teas, spices, jams, and biscuits sat several jars of Branston Pickle. I walked out with three, along with one pack of Hobnobs, two bags of Walkers crisps, and a spring in my step.
Although you can now buy it online pretty easily (except for the no-chunk), finding that local supply of Branston—four quick subway stops away—was a game-changer for me. So far, I've stopped short of eating it straight out of the jar. Or stirring it into pasta (yep—it's a thing). But a cheese and pickle sandwich? I'll take that any time, any day. I'd be happy to make you one, too.
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