Stephen McGinty: The fish supper sauce debate

It began as a tale of two sauces, but Stephen McGinty argues that there is a third way with your fish supper – a good dollop of mayonnaise

A young Belgian makes sure she has plenty of mayo on her meal on chips revolution day  celebrating the national dish. Picture: Getty

IN THE VERDICT, which is perhaps Paul Newman’s greatest performance, he plays a drunken Boston lawyer, an ambulance chaser who seizes a final chance of redemption by refusing a pay-off and taking a negligible hospital to court.

In a bar, over a pitcher of beer, he eloquently synthesises, in words written by David Mamet, how the legal system works: “the law doesn’t offer you justice, it offers you a chance of justice.” In what promises to be the trial of the new century Tony Winters, a Glaswegian, who has lived in Edinburgh for 18 years has vowed to make his case to Madame Justice in the hope of righting a historic wrong. Mr Winters, an electrical engineer from Granton, seeks nothing less than to enshrine in law the right of any peckish Glaswegian to be served in an Edinburgh chip shop the free condiment of his or her choice.

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Why, oh why, he has beseeched to the Heavens, should he, upon entering the Gold Sea fish ‘n’ chip emporium in Ferry Road, and ordering a sausage supper, a hamburger supper and a fish supper then be forced to pay an extra 25p for a sachet of ketchup when the establishment is only too happy to provide those weaned on ‘salt ‘n’ sauce’, Edinburgh’s unique brew of brown sauce and vinegar, free? What is this, raged Mr Winters, other than blatant discrimination against those who hail from the west and whose palate requires a sweet sauce as the suitable accompaniment to battered sausage and fish? Can there be any explanation other than racism and the establishment’s cunning decision to levy an underhand “chip tax” on those outsiders whose noses wrinkle up when offered a free slosh of Edinburgh’s noxious brown brew?

So enraged at the chippy’s blatant discrimination that Mr Winters stormed out and has vowed to take the Gold Sea to court. He declared: “I’m feeling racially persecuted because of a condiment.” (Perhaps my favourite quote in any newspaper this year.) In their defence, Paul Crolla, owner of the Gold Sea, said it was common practice for fish ‘n’ chip shops to charge for branded sachets and his position was supported by Innes Clark, head of Morton Fraser’s employment team who has declared that Mr Winters is on a hiding to nothing. “Whilst the ambit of unlawful discrimination has widened very considerably over the years, it would not cover Mr Winters’ situation. The chip shop is not acting unlawfully.”

While I have some sympathy with Mr Winter’s position, (imagine the frustration of being a tight-fisted ‘Weegie’ forced to watch locals lap up ‘chippy sauce’ for free?) I do so from the elevated position enjoyed by all those of a cultured European palate who seek neither tomato ketchup nor brown sauce as an accompaniment to one’s fish supper, and if we are honest, look down on those who do. For I view this commotion through the polished monocle of one who is happy to pay the surcharge to secure the sachet of one’s choice, yes like those who favour Stella Artois over Tennent’s, when it comes to a condiment I seek something “reassuringly expensive” – I’m a mayonnaise man!

Had I been a customer at the Gold Sea, it would have cost me at least 75 pence for three sachets of Hellmann’s for what is a fish supper without the mountain of chips liberally coated in a blanket of snowy-white mayonnaise? What, for that matter, is a sandwich without a similar duvet of deliciousness, where would tuna be without a tussle with mayo and who, in all honesty, could eat a salad without this oleaginous accompaniment? Mayonnaise and me, well, we go way back, but the curious thing is I can’t quite recall where we first met, it’s as if we’ve always been together, and still dine a-deux at least twice a day.

It’s never gone stale between us and though my wife may complain that we spend too much time together, I really don’t think so. But when I discovered that Hellmann’s Mayonnaise has just turned 100 years old I thought it only proper to find out a little bit more about my mistress in a jar. She was brought to me by Richard Hellmann, a German immigrant to America, who was born in 1876 in Vetschau, in the Spree forest, south of Berlin and died in New York in 1971, at the age of 95, having earned a considerable fortune by selling his wife’s recipe for mayonnaise. Yet had he not decided at the last minute to pass on the maiden voyage of a new liner, the Titanic, and return a little later from Britain to America, my ode to mayonnaise would be addressed to another brand.

For in 1913, Hellmann, who had opened a deli with his wife, began selling the store’s mayonnaise to customers to take away. They had two brands, with the finer, more expensive one wrapped in a blue ribbon, and within a few years demand rocketed. Yet it wasn’t until 1961 that the British palate was introduced to Hellmann’s when this American usurper went head to head with our own traditional salad cream and, over time, there was only ever going to be one winner. Today we spend over £100 million a year on mayonnaise compared to £49m on salad cream, while earlier this year the most popular sandwich in Britain was revealed to be egg mayo.

Yet while I, personally, have Mr Hellmann to thank for my introduction to mayonnaise, it remains unclear to whom we all have to thank for first mixing up eggs, oil and vinegar. While failure is an orphan, a culinary success such as this has many fathers, oh and a mother, for, according to Pierre Lacam, a 19th century food writer, it was first made in 1459 in London by a woman called Annamarie Turcauht, who stumbled upon it while making custard. However the French disagree, as do the Spanish. The French claim that mayonnaise was first whipped up by the personal chef of Armand de Vigneret du Alessis, to celebrate the French admiral’s victory over the British during a naval battle at the Port of Mahon on Minorca in 1756, and subsequently named after the captured city: mahon-aise. Not so, according to the Spanish, who insist the sauce was already established there by the Catalan-speaking residents of Minorca and known as Salsa Mahonesa.

While it would be another 50 years before the word, mayonnaise, made its first appearance in a printed text, there are yet more interpretations and claims of right. According to Antoine Careme, the French chef who is renowned as the father of haute cuisine, it should be called “magnonnaise” as, according to him, it is derived from the French verb manier which means “to stir”. However Larousse Gastronomique reports that mayonnaise is a possible corruption of moyeunaise and comes from Old French word moyeu which translates as “egg yolk”. Who knows where the truth lies?

I’m also in the dark as to how it became a continental accompaniment for chips. The Belgians are said to have first dunked a dollop on top of a pile and, interestingly, the first chips in Scotland are said to have been made by a Belgian immigrant in Dundee in 1870. (According to the Federation of Fish Fryers the first fish ‘n’ chip shop opened in either London or Manchester in 1860, while the continental dish got a mention the previous year in Charles Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities in 1859.)

What is interesting is that America, which slathers mayonnaise on almost anything, is repulsed at the idea of the condiment as an accompaniment to chipped potatoes. Just remember the incredulous response of Samuel L Jackson’s Jules, the hit man in Pulp Fiction when John Travolta’s Vincent regales him of his culinary adventures in continental fast food.

Vincent: “But you know what they put on french fries in Holland instead of ketchup?”

Jules: “What?”

Vincent: “Mayonnaise.”

Jules: “Goddamn!”

Vincent: “I seen ‘em do it. And I don’t mean a little bit on the side of the plate, they f******’ drown ‘em in it.”

Curiously, mayonnaise is still viewed in America as the natural condiment of the White Anglo Saxon Protestant and viewed with suspicion by others. However, the popularity of mayonnaise is one taste shared between America and Russia, the only market in Europe, where it outsells ketchup, although they do make it in their own manner with sunflower seed oil. So could President Obama thaw out the nation’s icy relations with its old foe by inviting President Putin over for a mayonnaise sandwich? Perhaps not, yet mayonnaise may be the answer to Tony Winter’s frigid relations with the Gold Sea, instead of seeking recourse to the fickle whims of Madame Justice I’d advise him to abandon both ketchup or “chippy sauce” and embrace the enlightened tastes of the mayonnaise connoisseur.

Certain pleasures are worth the price.