Hot peppers – capsicums – were introduced to England from Spain in the sixteenth century, and were growing in England by 1548. Looking at seventeenth century English books, a number of references to ‘Guinea peppers’ and cayenne pepper appear, with an early example being found in John Parkinson’s Paradisi in sole Paradisus Terrestris (1629).
In his renowned book The Complete Herbal (1653), the English botanist and herbalist Nicholas Culpeper includes an entry on cayenne pepper (‘Guinea Pepper’), in which he notes its ‘fiery, sharp, biting taste’ and ‘temperature hot and dry’. Cayenne peppers, eaten raw, would ‘burn and inflame the mouth and throat so extremely that it would be hard to be endured’. Yet, despite the ‘evil qualities’ of these ‘violent plants’, when powdered, cayenne pepper ‘may serve instead of ordinary pepper to season meat or broth for sauce, for it not only gives it a good taste or relish, but tends to discuss the wind and colic in the body’. Culpeper includes instructions on how to make cayenne pepper powder for culinary use.
In 1669, the Englishman John Evelyn published a book titled Acetaria: A Discourse of Sallets, which offers an extensive collection of salads and vegetable dishes. Cayenne pepper again made an appearance, with Evelyn including instructions for preparing a cayenne vinegar (‘in a separate Vinegar, gently bruise a Pod of Guinny-Pepper‘).
In the 18th Century, we find cayenne pepper as an ingredient in numerous dishes. Elizabeth Raffald’s The Experienced English Housekeeper (1769), for example, contains multiple references to ‘Chyan pepper’. By this time, as Stephen Schmidt writes, ‘cayenne was beloved in England’ and ‘Raffald’s reliance on cayenne in The Experienced English Housekeeper is almost compulsive’. Raffald’s book was not only very popular in her native England, but was also one of ‘the most popular cookbooks in colonial and postindependence America’.
By the nineteenth century, hot pepper recipes and products were very well-known. William Kitchiner’s bestselling 1822 book The Cook’s Oracle (which was also extremely popular in the United States), for example, contains entries on cayenne pepper, ‘Essence of Cayenne’, and ‘Chili Vinegar’. Kitchiner’s book contains quite an extensive discussion regarding cayenne pepper. He notes that, in the England of the period, Indian cayenne pepper and cayenne pepper from the West Indies were both sold and used. Kitchiner considered the Indian cayenne pepper to be ‘prepared in a very careless manner’ and alleged it was adulterated with food colouring or even red lead to approve its colour. The cayenne pepper imported from the West Indies, meanwhile, was made up of ‘an indiscriminate mixture of the powder of the dried pods of many species of Capsicums – especially of the Bird Pepper, which is the hottest of all’. According to Kitchiner, ‘respectable oil shops in London’ sold West Indian cayenne pepper and ‘Capsicums and Chilies… may be purchased at the Herb Shops in Covent-Garden, the former for about five, the latter for two shillings per hundred’. That hot peppers were being sold by the hundred is indicative of the extent of their use.
Kitchiner’s ‘Essence of Cayenne’ recipe reads as follows:
Put half an ounce of Cayenne pepper into half a pint of brandy or wine; let it steep for a fortnight, and then pour off the clear liquor. This is nearly equal to fresh Chili juice.
‘This or the Chili vinegar’, writes Kitchiner, ‘is extremely convenient for the extempore seasoning and finishing of soups, sauces, &c.’
Kitchiner’s ‘chili vinegar’ is made by infusing fresh chillis – ‘cut in half, or pounded’ – in ‘a pint of the best vinegar for a fortnight’. ‘This is commonly made with the foreign bird pepper’, Kitchiner notes, although he favoured milder ‘red English Chilies’. Kitchiner observes: ‘Many people cannot eat fish without the addition of an acid, and Cayenne pepper: to such palates this will be an agreeable relish’.
Other recipes employing hot peppers found in Kitchiner’s book include:
- A ‘Piquante sauce for cold meat, fish, &c.’ made using horseradish, salt, mustard, eshallots, celery seed, and cayenne pepper, soaked in vinegar.
- A ‘Savoury Ragout Powder’ made up of salt, mustard, allspice, black pepper, grated lemon peel, ginger, nutmeg, and cayenne pepper.
- A curry powder made up of coriander seed, turmeric, black pepper, mustard, ginger, lesser cardamoms, cayenne pepper, and cumin seed.
- Horseradish Vinegar: ‘Pour a quart of best vinegar on three ounces of scraped horseradish, an ounce of minced eschalot, and one drachm of Cayenne; let it stand a week, and you will have an excellent relish for cold beef, salads, &c. costing scarcely any thing. A portion of black pepper and mustard, celery or cress-seed, may be added to the above’.
- Pickles: ‘The strongest vinegar must be used for pickling… To assist the preservation of pickles, a portion of salt is added; and for the same purpose, and to give flavour, long pepper, black pepper, allspice, ginger, cloves, mace, garlic, eschalots, mustard, horseradish, and capsicum’.
- A tomato sauce made using twelve or more tomatoes: ‘[P]ut them in a stew-pan with a capsicum, and two or three table-spoonfuls of beef gravy; set them on a slow stove for an hour, or till properly melted; then rub them through a tamis into a clean stew-pan, with a little white pepper and salt, and let them simmer together a few minutes’.
Isabella Beeton’s bestselling Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861) contains similar recipes and includes more than 200 references to cayenne pepper. Beeton was arguably more a compiler of recipes than an originator, and she reproduces (without attribution) Kitchiner’s recipes for Essence of Cayenne and chili vinegar, although in the Essence of Cayenne recipe she swaps the brandy or wine for vinegar and offers ‘Cayenne Vinegar’ as an alternative name.
Also found in Beeton’s book are a recipe for ‘pickled capsicums’ and a seasoning blend called ‘Hot Spice’, which is presented as ‘a Delicious Adjunct to Chops, Steaks, Gravies, &c.’ The recipe reads as follows:
INGREDIENTS.—3 drachms each of ginger, black pepper, and cinnamon, 7 cloves, 1/2 oz. mace, 1/4 oz. of cayenne, 1 oz. grated nutmeg, 1-1/2 oz. white pepper.
Mode.—Pound the ingredients, and mix them thoroughly together, taking care that everything is well blended. Put the spice in a very dry glass bottle for use. The quantity of cayenne may be increased, should the above not be enough to suit the palate.
A few years after Mrs Beeton was first published, commercially produced bottled hot sauces were on sale in Britain. Clarence’s Cayenne Sauce, for example, was – according to 1869 and 1870 advertisements in London newspapers – ‘pronounced by connoisseurs the best sauce’. Clarence’s Cayenne Sauce was promoted at the International Exhibition of 1862 as follows:
This sauce is used as a relish to roast meat, game, poultry, steaks, chops, cutlets, fish, soup, gravy, &c. Its thorough adaptation to this purpose has won for it a first class among sauces, and extensive patronage in the houses of the nobility and gentry, and in the clubs.
‘The clubs’ is a reference to the private members clubs of London, where the wealthy gathered to drink and socialise.
Arthur Gay Payne’s The Housekeeper’s Guide to Preserved Meats, Fruits, Vegetables, &c. (1886) contains an entry on Clarence’s Cayenne Sauce, which states: ‘Cayenne sauce is a very hot sauce’. Hot spice blends and hot sauces were evidently very popular in the period. Mary Davies’ The Menu Cookery Book (1885) includes a ‘Sauce Piquante’, as well as ‘dry’ and ‘wet’ recipes for a dish called ‘devilled bones’. The dry recipe reads as follows:
Take the leg, back, or wing bones of turkey or fowl, score them a little with a knife, butter them well, then lay made mustard thickly over, sprinkle cayenne or common pepper on, and broil. Serve very hot.
This English dish – a favourite in the private members clubs of London – was made by combining ‘the bones of any remaining joint or poultry, which has still some meat on’ with butter, hot mustard, and cayenne pepper. The meat was scored so the seasonings would permeate throughout, then coated with a ‘devil sauce’ and briefly cooked until hot. While butter, hot mustard, and cayenne pepper were the basic ingredients of these hot sauces, there were of course variations. The members of Boodle’s Private Members’ Club (which exists to this day) in St James’s Street, London, for example, were served devilled bones coated in a mixture of butter, dry English mustard, black pepper, salt, curry powder, cayenne pepper, and Worcestershire sauce.
While hot sauces and devilled bones were much loved, not everyone was a fan. Kettner’s Book of the Table (1877), for example, contains the following disparaging remarks:
It is the great fault of all devilry that it knows no bounds. A moderate devil is almost a contradiction in terms; and yet it is quite certain that if a devil is not moderate he destroys the palate, and ought to have no place in cookery, the business of which is to tickle, not to annihilate, the sense of taste.
Eventually, the hot sauce and devilled bones trend died out, a fact bemoaned by the essayist EV Lucas in his 1924 book Encounters and Diversions:
Britons, who were never to be slaves, are slaves once more, principally to cynical Italian caterers. Where are certain simple delicacies of yesteryear? Where is that ancient nocturnal amenity, the devilled bone? After the theatre, how agreeable it once was, too many years ago, to seek the Blue Posts in Cork Street and be sure of devilled bones!
A head waiter is quoting as saying that ‘nobody asks for them now’.
However, visit any major supermarket (and plenty of smaller shops) in England today, and you can purchase a wide variety of hot sauces, including cayenne sauces, although Clarence’s Cayenne Sauce is sadly nowhere to be found. Asking for devilled bones in a pub or bar will most likely result in a look of confusion on the part of the barkeeper. Ask for hot wings, however, and there’s a fair chance you’ll be served some, particularly in the larger chains.
While English cookery is often assumed to have been historically bland and lacking in heat and seasonings, this assumption is false. For the better off, at least, spice blends and hot peppers were a part of English cuisine for a number of centuries.