One of the things I keep coming across when reading English literature of the early 20th century is reference to something called 'the Gentleman's Relish'. Often in stories similar to those of P.G. Wodehouse or Evelyn Waugh where lazy gentlemen are served gentleman's relish spread sparingly on hot buttered toast by their butlers. How so very snooty.
I did a bit of ferreting around and discovered that "Gentleman's Relish" often refers to something that gives a bit of oomph or umami to bread, meat and dishes that need a little something extra. (I did also come across a rather dubious definition of gentleman's relish of the brothel variety but we won't go there.)
So when I happened across a little tub of the Relish in a supermarket that looked like I snatched it immediately and ran home. Could it possibly be THE Gentleman's Relish immortalised in bright young thing Nancy Mitford's novels of interwar Britain, The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate? (A very apt title since it's below freezing in London this week.)
The protagonist Linda (loosely based on aristocratic Nancy) has just stopped crying after losing her beloved pet and is being comforted by her Aunt Sadie who says:
'Have some nice hot toast, then.'
'Can I have Gentleman's Relish on it?' she said, quick to make capital out of Aunt Sadie's mood, for Gentleman's Relish was kept strictly for Uncle Matthew, and supposed not to be good for children.
It's only a little quote but it makes me tremendously happy when I come across food I know in my literature. I've long been a fan of the six Mitford sisters of these two books-- the larger-than-life daughters of Lord Redesdale and the bright young things that terrorised London society with their wild and reckless parties in the mid-1900s.
And look, it comes with a warning: To appreciate the fine flavour of this relish, it should be used VERY SPARINGLY.
Why? Because the Gentleman's Relish or Patum Peperium (pepper paste) is made from salt, anchovies and peppers and is EXTREMELY salty and spicy. It looks a bit funny but it's very nice on hot buttered toast or English muffins.
The taste reminded me of the fish pastes we were given to spread on our bread at tea-time once lessons finished at school. I went to a girls boarding school just beyond North London and at 3:15pm every day, we would run out of our classrooms straight into the dining room like hungry beasts to be greeted with loaves of sugar-filled white bread, butter, chocolate spread and jars of fish pastes (salmon, tuna and sardine). Healthy snack for healthy brains. Naturally the chocolate spread disappeared first. I was a bit hesitant at first but like many British food I encountered, it grew on me in my four years there. The Gentleman's Relish is the same sort of thing, but more refined.
My mum's a big fan of the Gentleman's Relish and I even scoured London to find her one made from salmon rather than anchovies. I haven't tried it myself but I'm assuming it'll taste even more fishy. And you can even get a fancypants one from Fortnum & Masons for four times the price, but it does come in an elegant ceramic jar and they've renamed it Anchovial Alchemy. Very sexy.
Which made me wonder what it would taste like mixed with spaghetti. I cooked some spaghetti al dente (naturally) and mixed in some butter, the Gentleman's Relish, grated parmigiano reggiano and some black pepper.
It was pretty good and reminded me a little of pasta with butter and shoyu (soy sauce). SO Japanese.