From the Brand Historian’s Timeline: 1922
Heading north on the A38 from Lichfield towards Burton on Trent, you will find several small villages that nestle on the border between Staffordshire and Derbyshire, but which more than a thousand years ago formed the uneasy frontier between Saxon Mercia and the Danelaw. Probably named after a Dane called Brant, Branston was one of these villages. Until the early years of the 20th Century, it managed to enjoy a quiet life beside the River Trent, but then things got considerably busier.
In 1916, in the midst of The Great War, the British Government decided to build a huge machine gun factory here, believing it would be safely beyond the range of Zeppelins and Gotha bombers. Barely just commissioned, the war ended, and the factory was sold to a food processing company. Thus, it was in Branston in 1922, when the British Empire was at its apogee (accounting for one in four of all people on earth), and the British Broadcasting Corporation was just starting to inform, educate and entertain, that Crosse and Blackwell launched one of the most characterful of all British food icons: Branston Pickle.
Branston Pickle is a sticky, sweet and sour vegetable spread consisting of carrots, onions, cauliflower and gherkins pickled with vinegar and apple, which famously revives cold cuts and spikes bland lumps of cheddar. Company folklore says the recipe for Branston was created by a Mrs Graham and her suitably posh sounding daughters Ermentrude and Evelyn, but an industrial version was now to be produced in Crosse and Blackwell’s new state of the art food factory where late was heard the rattle of machine guns.
While Crosse and Blackwell sounds to modern ears like a small Hipster food enterprise that has just popped up in Bermondsey, it was already, by 1922, very ancient. With roots going back to 1706 and the first attempts to profit from trade with the new British Colonies, the business was acquired and rebranded Crosse and Blackwell in 1830. This was when two young twenty-five-year-old chancers called Edmund Crosse and Thomas Blackwell bought the business for £600 and set about implementing an ambitious plan to scale the business up by selling their range of pickles condiments, and soups throughout the Empire. At a time when there were many concerns about food quality, especially foods preserved in lead, Crosse and Blackwell invested in technical skills and packaging. They were rewarded in 1837 when they received, from Queen Victoria, one of the first-ever royal warrants.
But whilst Crosse and Blackwell’s investment in the best food technology continued by the acquisition of the Branston site, unfortunately things did not work out, and in 1925 the pickle business with its Staffordshire brand name was relocated to South London, to Bermondsey, in fact! Over the next 100 years, as pickle sales proliferated, the production of Branston was switched to a variety of sites before finally settling down in Bury St Edmunds. In those 100 years, Branston has acquired more than its fair share of influencers and super-fans, including Naomi Campbell, Gwyneth Paltrow and Bridget Jones. It would seem the latter likes to frequently bring out the Branston at her flat in Borough Market and apparently eat it straight out of the jar.
Today Branston like many famous British brands, is foreign owned, in this case by the Japanese condiment conglomerate Mizkan. In the last 100 years, it has travelled a long way from Mrs Graham’s kitchen and the Trent Valley, but en route, it has acquired an unassailable role as the spicy sizzle in every Ploughman’s Lunch.
Music to accompany your Ploughman’s Lunch:
The Laughing Policeman Charles Jolly (Charles Penrose)
A Bonus Poem is available at: