The day of judgement is almost upon us.
Soon we will be called forth to follow the Christmas commandments of our lord and saviour Delia (or Nigella, whichever you prefer) and begin the rituals: the chopping, the stirring, the basting. We will sing the hymns of Wizzard and share communion of a bucks fizz (or two) well before 9am.
Whether you’re a ‘presents first thing in the morning’ kind of person or a masochist who waits until after lunch, there’s one thing you should know: the day is made or broken by the quality of the bread sauce.
It’s an opinion I haven’t seen too much online and yet it’s one my whole family shared when I was growing up. In fact, so seriously do my family take bread sauce that no one except mum was allowed to make it and the first year I took over my sister insisted mum make a ‘back up’ vat too.
‘Vat’ might seem an odd way to measure bread sauce – after all, it’s a once a year accompaniment, right? Just another sauce to go with the cranberry jelly and the gravy. Surely ‘jug’ would be better?
You might think so, but you’d be wrong; growing up our family of four tripled the recipe. The recipe that, as standard, served 8 people. For us, ‘vat’ is an entirely appropriate measurement – nay, the only appropriate measurement – when it comes to bread sauce.
Tis the season.
Anyway, I’d done an obligatory mince pie post to celebrate the festivities, but what I was really excited about was delving into the history of my very own reason for the season.
For the uninitiated, proper bread sauce contains nothing but bread, butter, milk and cream, an onion and some spices. It should look a little like porridge and taste creamy and mild and ever so slightly fragrant. Its flavours are best approximately 8-12 hours after lunch when it’s eaten cold from the fridge in gelatinous mounds off a silver spoon, or between two slices of cheap white bread which have been buttered and dotted with leftover stuffing bits. In short, if anything was going to prove the existence of God to me at this time of year, it’d be a perfect bowl of Delia’s bread sauce, not a nativity scene.
Using bread to thicken sauces was an ancient technique, but I was interested to see if there were any old recipes which made bread the central part of the sauce itself and what those recipes tasted like. Were any of them even remotely similar to modern bread sauce? Were they served alongside turkey? Was there any historical precedent for cooking up entire vats of the stuff, or was it just a bonkers tradition unique to my family?
Take crustes of brede & grynde hem smale; do þerto poudour of galyngale, of canel, of gynger, and salt it; temper hyt with vyneger & drawe it vp þorow a straynour & messe hit forth.
Take crusts of bread and finely grind them; to this add powder of galangal, cinnamon and ginger, and salt it; temper it with vinegar, and blend it through a strainer, and serve it forth.Forme of Cury. Text and translation copyright Christopher Monk 2020
Galentyne was the earliest English precursor to bread sauce I could find. Forme of Cury, where this recipe comes from, was compiled around 1390 and was the cook book for Richard II’s master cooks. Being a 14th century recipe, galentyne wasn’t intended to be eaten with turkey, but it also didn’t give any indication what it was an accompaniment to. Knowing how the rich ate in the 14th century it could have been anything: pork, beef, porpoise, swan, seal…
Dr. Christopher Monk, who has written a post about the various galentynes of Forme of Cury, points out that the word ‘galentyne’ is pretty hard to pin down. In some recipes it appears as a sauce, in others a jelly. It can be served hot, or cold. Some versions use vinegar, others use only wine, some both.
The first thing I noticed was a lack of quantities. This was totally standard for the 14th century and just as totally unhelpful as it sounds, especially given the only liquid in this recipe was vinegar.
I blitzed a handful of white bread crusts with the ground spices and added tablespoon after tablespoon of white wine vinegar until I ended up with a fairly thick paste, which I pushed through a sieve before trying.
Perhaps I tried too much at first, because the first taste was like eating a tablespoon of acid. My lips tried to eat themselves as they curled back from the sourness and my eyes began to prickle but once the initial assault was over I began to appreciate the tartness and the aftertaste, which wasn’t too bad: slightly spicy and salty.
I even went back for more, this time a small smear on a bit of ham and it was actually delicious. It reminded me a bit of a pickle, the sort of thing you’d serve with chutneys and mustards and piccalilli; I reckon I’d make this to serve alongside a Christmas ham in future years.
Was it a good approximation of modern bread sauce, though? No, not even close. It had vaguely the right consistency and colour, but that’s where the similarities ended. I moved onto the next recipe.
Henry VIII’s rabbit sauce: 1594.
Fine Sauce for a roasted Rabbet: used to king Henrie the eight. TAKE a handfull of washed Parcelie, minced small, boil it with butter and vergious upon a chafingdish, season it with Sugar, and a litle pepper grose beaten: when it is readie, put in a few crums of white bread amongst the others let it boile againe til it be thick: then lay it in a platter, like the bredth of three fingers, lay of each side one rosted Cony or more so serue them.The Good Huswifes Handmaide for the Kitchin, Thomas Dawson.
This seemed more like it; no mention of vinegar and plenty of butter. There was still a worrying lack of cream or milk to give the sauce a decent thick creaminess, but it was moving in the right direction and, as the recipe suggested it had been served to Henry VIII himself, it seemed promising that it’d be rich and filling at least.
I placed the chopped parsley, butter and verjuice in a pan and let it boil together for a minute or two. Verjuice is just the juice of unripe grapes. You can make it yourself, but it’s easier to buy a bottle “just to have in for historical experiments.” Once bought, the bottle will take up cupboard space in your kitchen and your husband will moan that it just adds to the clutter and never gets used.
As soon as the butter had melted I added sugar, pepper and a handful of breadcrumbs and…panicked. The recipe definitely said ‘sauce’, but the breadcrumbs soaked the liquid up like a sponge. It didn’t resemble a sauce at all, no matter how much more verjuice or butter I added, it just stayed a dense mass. I re-read the recipe; it suggested the ‘sauce’ be served “the breadth of three fingers” which suggested some sort of solidity but I was still a bit taken aback, especially as it was easier to cut with a knife rather than spoon onto a plate and looked alarmingly like pork stuffing.
In terms of flavour, however, this was by far the most pleasant. It was rich and buttery, like a good bread sauce should be. Modern bread sauce has a slight sweetness to it, but this was far sweeter than I was used to because of the verjuice and added sugar.
The main flavour was parsley, which unfortunately wasn’t like a good bread sauce at all. Good bread sauce should be stodgy and carbohydrate heavy, with nary a hint of anything as healthy as a green herb in sight. Henry VIII’s nailed the stodginess (perhaps a little too well…) but the overeager abundance of parsley in this one meant it still wasn’t right. I moved on.
Gallendine sauce for a Turkey: 1653
Take some Claret Wine, and some grated Bread, and a sprig of Rosemary, a little beaten Cloves, a little beaten Cinnamon, and some Sugar.A True Gentlewomans Delight, Elizabeth Grey – Countess of Kent
Did I really want to make another version of galentyne again? No, of course not, and besides I was pretty sure I didn’t have enough vinegar left. But what intrigued me about this recipe was that it specified serving it with turkey, just like modern bread sauce.
The first thing that struck me in this recipe was the addition of claret wine. True bread sauce should be white. I began to feel very nervous as I poured wine over my heap of breadcrumbs and watched them turn white to deepest red.
There was no cooking to be done here, so once the herbs and spices had been added I assumed it was done.
This was the most unpleasant of the lot, which surprised me. I think I’d assumed because it was the latest of the three it would somehow be the best – as if time would afford the creator of the recipe some additional skill or appreciation for good bread sauce. Of the three, however, this was the only one we ended up not being able to finish.
Consistency wise it was the closest to modern bread sauce, but appearance wise it was about as far away as you could get: bold and bright and covered in twigs. The taste was also nothing like bread sauce: it was just wine with soggy lumps of bread and the occasional sprig of rosemary poking you in the gums. No, thank you.
The closest taste to modern bread sauce was probably Henry VIII’s rabbit sauce. The addition of butter made it by far the creamiest of the lot but the appearance was more like a log of sausage meat than a sauce. None of them were very good matches – either too acidic, too solid or too alcoholic, which just goes to show that having bread as an ingredient does not a bread sauce make.
By this point I was beginning to suspect that Delia had invented the perfect recipe for bread sauce through divine intervention rather than historical evolution… and then I found Hannah Glasse’s 1747 recipe:
Bread sauce for Roasted Partridge
Bread sauce…made thus: Take about a handful or two of crumbs of bread, put in a pint of milk or more, a small whole onion, a little whole white pepper, a little salt, and a bit of butter, boil it all well up; then take the onion out and beat it with a spoon.The Art of Cookery, Hannah Glasse.
Given Delia’s militarily precise and inflexible timings for Christmas day lunch, I don’t know how much she’d approve of Hannah’s somewhat lackadaisical approach to the quantities and measurements here, but I couldn’t fault the foundations of the recipe. Bread? Check. Milk? Check. Butter? Check. Wine, vinegar, verjuice? No, no, no – thank God.
So, were any of the three I made worthy of triple portions? No. But, more importantly, did any of them make the cut for this year’s Christmas Day table? Also no – it’s meant to be a day of unbridled joy and pleasure for God’s sake.
For the day itself I’ll stick to Delia’s bread sauce recipe, but maybe now I’ll pause before dunking my head into the bowl and remind my husband and daughter of the rich history of the stuff – much to their delight, I’m sure. And if there’s one positive to the Christmas lockdown, it’s that my mum – who texted to tell me I had “better not let her down” with this post – wasn’t around to see some of the unfortunate origins of her beloved side dish.
9 thoughts on ““All I want for Christmas is bread sauce”: A brief history.”
This is a fascinating post. I have never eaten bread sauce. The real Delia type, I mean. I may have to do it now!
I’m sure it would work with gf bread. It’s really delicious, you won’t be disappointed!
I’m looking at Beeton’s BoHM, and while she has bread sauce, it doesn’t look quite the same as your mom’s. Still worth looking at tho’
You’re right, it’s very similar! But only makes a pint or so, and that’s just not enough for my family 😆
My mother’s bread sauce was amazing. I ate it cold on its own and as cold bread sauce sandwiches. Don’t know what the recipe was.
I do the same thing. Home made bread sauce is the best!
This was fascinating! And so informative from a food anthropological standpoint as well. I am from Boston USA and if anyone here does make a bread sauce I have not heard of it. I’m quite an Anglophile though ( 50% Scottish) so all things British fascinate me. I do believe that these traditional bread sauces are most likely the origin of our common bread stuffing. In New England this traditionally is nothing more than stale-ish bread, a few eggs some chicken broth, sautéed onions and celery and a few teaspoons of Bells seasoning which is a mixture of sage, thyme, a hint of ginger and several other dried spices. Anyway, thank you for a brilliant article! Be well everyone
My job as a child was to make the bread sauce, you can never have too much bread sauce, or too much butter in it. It is still the embodiment of Christmas – whatever the time of year. Long live the sauce!