There used to be lots of ketchups, but now we have only one, the omnipresent tomato. In the 19th century, though, ketchup was often made from — bet you didn’t know this! — berries: gooseberries, say, or currants (the real ones, not the little seedless raisins) or grapes (which are technically berries, from the botanical point of view).
My favorite version is blueberry ketchup, not only because it’s made from good old blueberries but because it’s so startlingly purple-blue. I wouldn’t put it on a burger, but it’s quite delicious and would make a special Christmas present.
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You can find recipes for it on the Internet, but most aim to mimic tomato ketchup. The 19th-century recipes were quite different. They had more in common with apple butter than any ketchup we’re familiar with. (You could think of them as berry butters.)
A Dollop of History
Sweet ketchup was the result of a long development, beginning in the late 17th century. That was when English cooks started making “ketchups” in what seems, in retrospect, a rather feeble attempt to imitate soy sauce using English ingredients. Their faux-ketchups were based on anchovies, mushrooms, pickled walnuts and such things they had been using to flavor sauces. These liquids were basically a convenient way to vary gravy, which they put on meat, or melted butter, their universal sauce for fish or vegetables.
In the beginning, they were typically extracted with vinegar, so the first tomato ketchups, made around the beginning of the 19th century, were quite sour. If you added them to butter or gravy, they made a sort of instant tomato sauce. Kind of a weird one, we would now think, after more than a century of experience with marinara.
As the century wore on, sugar became cheaper, and some homemakers took advantage of this, making sweet tomato ketchup as a way of preserving some of the summer’s crop. It was a short step from there to the berry versions.
The Versatility of Berry Ketchup
How do you use blueberry ketchup? It’s actually sweet enough to go on pancakes, but its natural partner is pork. Forty years ago, food writer Richard Olney noted that there’s “something flat and sinister” about pork that cries out for fruit flavors, hence the traditional applesauce with pork chops and the pineapple that often pairs with ham.
You might also preserve the 18th-century tradition and use blueberry ketchup to doctor other sauces. Mix it with steak sauce (the cheapest supermarket brand you can find would be fine) to make a unique blueberry barbecue sauce. Try it – it’s remarkably good.
You can vary the spices, using nutmeg or allspice, say. The combination of cloves and mace was very popular in the 19th century and actually survives in many a modern tomato ketchup. You can also replace some of the white sugar with brown sugar or honey if you like.
As for grape ketchup, the traditional grapes are American varieties such as Concord, which gives as vivid a purple color as blueberries, but you can use any type you like. (Note that the familiar green Thompson Seedless grapes are relatively flavorless.) European wine or table grapes such as Flame Tokay have more sugar than native grapes, so reduce the quantity of sugar accordingly.
Prep time: 8 minutes
Cooking time: 45 to 50 minutes
Total time: 53 to 58 minutes
Yield: 2 1/2 to 2 3/4 cups
2 pounds blueberries
2 1/2 cups sugar
3/4 cup vinegar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1. Wash the blueberries and pick them over to remove stems and any spoiled or unripe berries. Drain and transfer to a 3-quart saucepan. Add the sugar and vinegar and bring to a boil. Cook until the berries are softened and have given up their color, 5 minutes or so.
2. Drain the berries in a colander and reserve the juice in a mixing bowl. Process the solids in a food processor 20 to 30 seconds and drain through a sieve placed over the bowl, using a spoon to press out as much of the juice as possible. Discard the solids.
3. Transfer all the liquid from the bowl back to the saucepan. Add the cinnamon, clove, pepper and a dash of salt. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to medium high and cook at a rolling boil until thick, 45 to 50 minutes, frequently scraping the sides down with a spatula and stirring to prevent sticking. To determine doneness, stir the contents of the pan around and remove the spoon; when they immediately stop moving, the ketchup is ready. At that point, a spoonful dripped onto a plate should stand up at least 1/16 inch.
Tightly covered, the ketchup will keep at room temperature at least two weeks, two months in the refrigerator.
Main photo: Put away the tomato ketchup — try blueberry instead. Credit: Charles Perry