As technical director for the past dozen years of Lea & Perrins, Inc., maker of the world's best-selling Worcestershire, Duncan has supervised the purchase of the hodgepodge of ingredients that add up to the sauce many regard as the caviar of condiments. He has traveled to the Mediterranean and Argentina to watch over anchovy packers (the fish is a major ingredient), and he has canvassed central Africa for the proper peppers. Most of the sauce's components, including molasses and vinegar, are listed on the label, but some spices and flavorings are not. Duncan, however, doesn't mind divulging the trick to the taste. "Our real secret ingredient is time," he says. Lea & Perrins Worcestershire is aged for a full two years, and Duncan scoffs at competitors who rush the process by cooking the mixture. Lea & Perrins hasn't changed its ways in a century.
A type of Worcestershire probably dates back to the Romans, who used a sauce called garum made of salted fish. But credit is given, in lore at least, to Lord Sandys, a 19th-century governor general of Bengal, who brought an Indian sauce recipe to England in the 1830s and gave it to two druggists, John Lea and William Perrins. "The story goes that it was perfectly vile," Duncan says. "They put it away in the basement and forgot about it, opened it up some time later and found it was fantastic." They named it Worcestershire (because it was made in the shire of Worcester), and they supplied it free to ships leaving major ports. "So people got used to it on voyages, where the food in those days was pretty foul anyway," Duncan explains. "It spread worldwide very quickly."
Duncan's great-great-grandfather, a Manhattan importer, began bringing the sauce to America in the late 1830s, and his grandfather began making it here at the turn of the century. Duncan's father, Dyson, served as Lea & Perrins' president until 10 years before his death in 1978, and Duncan himself left Vermont's Middlebury College in his sophomore year to march up the company ranks as a clerk-typist, factory mechanic, salesman and accountant. In 1967 Lea & Perrins came under the control of the London-based Imperial Group, and its sauce is now made in Canada and Australia as well as Britain and the U.S.
At the company's plant in Fair Lawn, N.J., sacks of spices are stored in cool rooms. There are barrels of eschalots from Holland, tamarind from the West Indies and garlic from Mexico. Worcestershire in various stages of aging sits in 356,000-gallon fir vats (which impart no flavor). "That's been there quite a while," notes Duncan, peering into a lumpy brown liquid. "You can see onions, and you can see garlic. By this time you won't find fish; you might find skeletons. The meat begins to fall off and get absorbed."
After months of mellowing and stirring, the liquid is pressed and strained. Then, Duncan explains, "We have to add the profit margin—water." Each batch is tasted by company experts, laboratory-tested for acidity, solids, salt level and viscosity, and then pasteurized. Next comes the bottling and wrapping in Lea & Perrins' distinctive tan paper. "The wrapping [which has been basically the same for 100 years] is a pain in the neck," Duncan complains, "but that is our image." Besides, he adds, "The stuff looks cruddy in a see-through bottle."
The sauce has gotten some flack because of its sodium content, but Duncan insists that hospital dieticians use it in low-salt meals "because, for a low level of salt per serving, it produces a more acceptable flavor than totally bland food." Still, he makes no nutritional claims. "It's not a food," he says. "It's a flavoring."
Duncan notes that Lea & Perrins' success hasn't made him a "multimillionaire," but his substantial share in the company allowed him to surrender his duties as active technical director last January to devote more attention to his favorite pastime, science fiction writing. Still on the company's board of directors, he lives in a 12-room home in Allendale, N.J., where he sometimes cooks for his five daughters and two sons (aged 11 to 22). But Duncan likes to leave the major work to wife Judith. "I enjoy doing sauces—Hollandaise or gravy or Béarnaise," he says. Of course, he cooks with the company sauce, but in moderation. "A dish should not taste like Worcestershire," he says, "or you've overdone it. I wouldn't ruin a good steak by pouring Worcestershire all over it at the table."
It's hard to pronounce and harder to spell, but Bloody Marys just wouldn't be the same without it. And, says Ransom Duncan, 44, whose family has sold Worcestershire (pronounced Wuhster-sheer) sauce in the U.S. for more than a century, "I have been unable to confirm the rumor that it's an effective aphrodisiac, in spite of the fact that I do have seven children."