Tom Doorley: Salad cream
Salad cream, as produced and marketed by Heinz, was one of the first convenience foods. Making a home-made version was simple enough, but it took time. Salad cream was reasonably cheap, and its creamy yet tart character made the basic salad seem a bit more exciting, a bit more glam. No wonder it was clasped to the collective bosom of the busy housewife, whether in the back-to-back terraces or the semi with all mod cons.
The argument about salad cream in class-conscious Britain goes like this. Just as Liebfraumilch and Black Forest gateau are uncomfortable reminders, for some of us, of a simpler and less pleasant time in our lives, so salad cream is forever associated with a certain bleakness that obtained before we discovered mayonnaise. It goes with cloth caps and deference and knowing your place.
Well, it doesn't really. Constance Spry, the woman who reinvigorated the art of floral decoration, may have been born in humble circumstances, but she was distinctly upper middle class by the time she produced, with her friend Rosemary Hume, her monumental *Cookbook* in 1956. And there it is: a recipe for ‘Cream Dressing (Thick)’.
But hang on a minute! That can't be right. It may be salad cream, of a sort, but it's just not the right *colour*. Turn the page of *The Constance Spry Cookbook* and you will find the recipe that puts paid to any notion of salad cream being a working-class condiment:
A typical English butler's dressing, and very good.
Yolk of 1–2 hard-boiled eggs
2 tablespoons best Lucca or olive oil
1 dessertspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon vinegar
English made mustard to taste
2–3 spring onions, chopped finely
¾ gill single cream (approx.)
Crush the yolks well with seasoning, add the oil by degrees, then add the Worcestershire sauce, vinegar, mustard and onions. Finish with the cream; whisk or shake it thoroughly in a jar. If a thick, creamy dressing is wanted, the cream may be whipped to a froth before adding.
The period detail there, apart from the mention of a butler, is the ‘Lucca or olive oil’. Lucca produces fine Tuscan olive oil. And in those days, straight ‘olive oil’ was what you got from the chemist to treat your earache.
I can confirm that this recipe works well. The sauce is not as thick as the stuff that comes out of a bottle, but the taste is similar. I prefer to add a bit more vinegar.
My mother occasionally made mayonnaise, but in those days – the 1960s – there was a lot of frugality about. It was wanton extravagance to use butter to make a cake, and I suppose the same went for whatever salad oil was available. So it was that mayonnaise was only produced, laboriously by hand, using a hand-beater (none of your fancy electric gizmos for my family), when there was fresh salmon.
This would be sent by a friend in the west. A fine Moy salmon would arrive every summer, and the mayonnaise would be prepared, the cucumber finely sliced, the radishes pulled from the garden and cut so they would open like little red-and-white flowers. Chives would be snipped into the potato salad, lemons would be quarted and, on occasion, a bottle of Blue Nun would be frozen to within an inch of her life.
But such events were rare. More often, a tin of Russian salad would be opened – again compliments of Heinz. This combination of potato, carrot, beetroot and peas (or am I imagining the peas), bathed in, well, salad cream, actually, was a version of something that the Italians love to serve amongst the antipasti. I remember being a bit shocked to see it on a school trip to Rome.
But back to salad cream. It still sells, I’m told, but I was surprised when I went to taste it again after all these years. It is unbearably sweet to my grown-up palate. And I feel like I have lost part of my past!
Website of the week
Does what it says on the tin.