Singer KT Tunstall aid it's the best non-alcoholic liquid on the face of the earth. Masters champion Danny Willett swears by it. And actor Sean Bean, an early victim of the Game of Thrones bloodletting (oops, spoiler alert), had it shipped out to a set he was working on in India. It’s Henderson’s Relish of course, one of Yorkshire’s most iconic products, but why all the fuss?
If you live in Sheffield, you will probably know the legend that is Henderson’s, but if you live elsewhere in God’s Own County, you may be struggling. So... Henderson’s Relish is a spicy sauce with a recipe so secret only three people in the world know its full ingredients (presumably they never travel in the same plane together), and over the past year it has become a global star.
This uniquely British story starts way back in 1885 when Henry Henderson perfected the spicy relish in 35 Broad Lane, his small merchant’s store in Sheffield. Since then, there has been uninterrupted production of Henderson’s within a short distance of where the first historic bottle was filled. In that time empires have fallen, countless wars have been fought and man has reached the moon, but Henderson’s, or Hendo’s as it is affectionately known, has remained a constant.
The sauce was immediately popular and its fame spread. In 1910 Henry’s company was bought by picklemakers Shaws of Huddersfield, and Charles Hinksman was installed as the General Manager. In 1940 Mr Hinksman bought Henderson’s from Shaws and formed the present company, Henderson’s, which has been in the family ever since.
Dr Kenneth Freeman, nephew of Charles Hinksman, became the Managing Director and Chairman in 1991 and is widely credited for making Henderson’s as legendary as it is today. Dr Freeman ran the company very successfully until his death in 2013 at the age of 92, and his wife Pamela Freeman is now the Managing Director, and one of the holders of the secret.
The recipe is a big deal: Henderson’s Relish is still being blended to the original secret recipe of Henry Henderson and it is now only known to three family members (Pamela, her son Simon and her daughter Julia). What we can say is that it is gluten-free and suitable for vegetarians and vegans because, unlike Worcestershire Sauce, it doesn’t contain anchovies, and among the ingredients are tamarind, cayenne pepper and garlic oil.
General Manager Patrick Byrne, although not privy to the secret recipe, is Henderson’s through and through, and here he takes up the story: ‘The company was still very small when it came under the care of the Freemans, but they had enough belief in both the product and themselves to take the business to where it is now,’ he says.
‘We are incredibly humbled by the love and loyalty which Henderson’s commands in the city of Sheffield. Sheffield is a tremendously proud city, which looks after its own. Henderson’s is very much part of the city’s fabric and anyone who dares criticise it gets into trouble. Just ask a certain Labour MP,’ he smiles.
That MP is Jim Dowd, from down south of course, who made disparaging comments about Hendo’s during a speech in the House of Commons a couple of years ago. Dowd dared to suggest that the relish was just a copy of its Worcestershire rival. His exact words were that Henderson’s were guilty of ‘parasitic packaging’. Within hours he had received an open letter from Sheffield MP and then deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.
Clegg told him: ‘Henderson’s Relish has been made in Sheffield for over 100 years and is a much loved local institution. Its aroma and flavour are unique. It is used by thousands of Sheffielders and, as Henderson’s appeal grows, many more people throughout the country and indeed around the globe.
‘Given the history behind Henderson’s Relish, I hope you can appreciate that Sheffielders are fiercely proud of it. We are confident it would win in any blind taste test, whether at a pub in Blackheath or anywhere else.’
Dowd had to eat his words, spending a day at Henderson’s new factory in Sheffield Parkway and enjoying tucking into a meat pie liberally awash with Henderson’s Relish. He has now admitted that Hendo’s is something very special indeed.
Meanwhile, Henderson’s appeal has continued to grow, as Clegg predicted. Patrick Byrne explains, ‘We are currently raising our profile across Yorkshire. Our famous sauce has been mainly sold in South Yorkshire and north Derbyshire – but a change in packaging will make it easier for more major supermarkets across Yorkshire to have the product delivered.
‘But we also need to focus on the brand’s fine heritage and continue to pay back the warmth and support shown to us by the local people. We will never forget our Sheffield roots. One way we have done that recently is to take part in a major charity initiative in the city, the Herd of Sheffield, launched by Sheffield’s Children’s Hospital.’
The Herd comprised 58 brightly-painted elephants which formed a trail in the city in July and will be auctioned off in October 2016 to raise money for The Children’s Hospital Charity. Elephants were chosen as 2016 marks 100 years since Lizzie the elephant was used in the steel industry to help with the war effort. The Henderson’s elephant, by the way, was named Hendophant.
It’s one of many occasions recently on which Henderson’s has appeared in the media. Another came earlier in the year, when a bottle bearing the words ‘Henderson’s Relish Sheffield’ was discovered in a field not far from the River Somme in France.
‘Every day turns up something different,’ says Patrick. ‘One of the nicest things is that people talk to us about it, telling us their stories about smuggling it abroad. So many people say they have to have it at family get- togethers, as if it’s part of the family.
‘This discovery put it in a new context. It’s very humbling. Someone was out there going through the horrors of that warfare, but they had a little bit of Sheffield with them through Henderson’s Relish. It is especially poignant that our bottle was found this year, the centenary of the Somme.’
The final endorsement comes from singer-songwriter Richard Hawley, who is not known for crying: ‘I got back from the States after nine months and was a mess. My wife cooked sausage and mash with gravy and Hendo’s in it. I took one mouthful and burst into tears. The taste of Henderson’s meant I was home at last with my family – the taste of Sheffield.’