Message in a (Henderson’s sauce) bottle

Henderson’s is part of Sheffield’s heritage and, as Josh Sutton discovers, artists are now finding inspiration in the brown, spicy sauce.

Luke Prests Hendos Man
Luke Prests Hendos Man

Sheffield boasts an enduring relationship with the dinner table. Wind back to 1297 and the authorities were processing their very first tax return from a cutler. The trickle soon turned into a flood and as the city became synonymous with stainless steel and its manufacture of knives and forks a little piece of the county’s craftsmanship ended up in homes the world over.

However, it was in the late 1800s that Sheffield’s greatest contribution to Britain’s culinary heritage occurred. That was when a salter and wholesaler by the name of Henry Henderson started mixing ingredients to make a relish. It was a small- scale production at first, but Henry was writing a piece of the city’s history and creating a brand which would be loved by everyone from David Blunkett to Richard Hawley and even non-Sheffielders like KT Tunstall, who described it as the “best non-alcoholic liquid on the face of the earth”.

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Ask any Sheffield resident, current or former, what is the city’s quintessential foodstuff, and you will be met with an unerring and resounding answer – Henderson’s Relish, that tangy sauce that comes in a small clear glass bottle, and is even approved by the Vegan Society.

Luke Prests Hendos Man

And which other foodstuff could cause a political storm? It’s a few months ago now that Jim Dowd MP was left red- faced after admitting in the Houses of Parliament that not only had he never heard of Henderson’s Relish but that its packaging was just a poor imitation of its Worcestershire rival.

A rebuff from Sheffield MPs Nick Clegg and David Blunkett, together with an invitation from Henderson’s themselves, found the wayward Mr Dowd visiting the factory to try the stuff for himself.

Mr Dowd failed to grasp what fans of the sauce they call Hendo’s know. The relish is more than just a few basic ingredients – in each bottle there’s also a few drops of nostalgia. It also appeals to the palette of several artists who, over the years, have captured Henderson’s unique flavour and presented recipes of their own making using the same basic ingredient.

Take Sheffield-born Jim Connolly’s comic strip style paean to the power of the sauce. This print enjoyed a great reaction and, in his own words: “It’s success inspired me to take a leap of faith and focus more fully on the comic-book style illustration I’ve always loved the most. Henderson’s were happy with it too and hung one in their premises which was hugely flattering.”

No longer a Sheffield resident, Jim keeps a bottle handy and uses it to lift a stir-fry and other rice dishes.

Jo Peel has recently returned to live in the city in which she grew up. A highly acclaimed artist who often chooses to depict buildings and urban landscapes in spray-paint and acrylics, her recipe for Hendo’s presents a superb vision of the factory on the corner of Leavygreave Road.

Pete McKee is a highly popular Sheffield-based artist of national renown. His iconic style, depicting famous sons of the city and other celebrities with slits for eyes and flat tones, seems to echo the working class reality of his upbringing. His many portrayals of the sauce have led to a working relationship with the company, with Henderson’s even using his artwork on their website. His use of flat, muted colour strips the subject matter to its bare ingredients, and allows the viewer to fill in the missing flavours.

Luke Prest’s Hendo’s Man is another example of artwork that captures the degree to which the sauce has entered the city’s psyche. In a five-frame comic strip the artist sums up the resourcefulness of Sheffield folk in times of crisis. His vignette tackles the unlikely subject of a local resident running out of sauce. In a bold move, and paying clear homage to Jo Shuster who, in 1938, brought the world Superman, Prest offers reassurance and an idea that somewhere out there Hendo’s Man is keeping a watchful eye on dinner plates around the city.

Born in Malawi, Kid Acne now works and lives in Sheffield. Renown for his graffiti-hip-hop style artwork, Kid Acne’s 2007 tribute to the sauce offers a simple single bottle, reminding us that Henderson’s is both strong and Northern.

The Henderson’s effect on Sheffield residents is a lasting one. Bought by Shaw’s of Huddersfield in 1910, 30 years later Charles Hinksman formed the company of Henderson’s (Sheffield) Ltd.

Last December fans were saddened to hear of the passing of the 92-year-old keeper of the Henderson’s recipe, Dr Kenneth Freeman. The nephew of Charles Hinksman, he had been at the helm for over 20 years. However, he leaves behind a legacy, which appears to mark an affinity of place, time and taste.