O is for… OXO

Well some Food Alphabeticals are easier than others, and time was short for today. Even the mighty Larousse Gastronomique has only 10 pages for the letter O. Despite the illustration on the left, today's choice is not based on a favourite ingredient of mine. What I prefer to feature is something which has a bit of history, and, preferably,  some useless trivia.

So I ruled out the obvious suspects. Onions: we all use them every day (though I once met a lady who said she didn't like them. Lord knows what her food was like.) Oranges - perhaps for another time. On the basis that one of my dearest readers makes the stuff, olive oil was ruled out too.

I put out a teaser on Twitter a day or two before this column appears, and invite guesses. To make life easier, I expressly ruled out ortolan and oiseau sans tete, which may require an explanation for some. If you believe the French to be civilised eaters, prepare to think again. An ortolan is a tiny migratory bird weighing about 30g. After trapping it the French would keep it alive in a box, feeding it on brandy soaked grain till it increased in weight four fold. And it gets worse - it was common to poke the poor thing's eyes out first. Before eating the wee crittur one would cover one's face with a cloth to hide the sin. While it is now illegal to catch them, this does still happen. Ortolan was apparently the last meal of the late French president Francois Mitterrand.

From eyeless birds to headless ones. That's the translation of oiseau sans tete. No barbarity involved here. It's a colloquial name given to a piece of meat which is stuffed and trussed, bird like.

Anyway, to today's hero, the OXO cube. You professional chefs out there who make your own beef stock, ending up with an intense jelly (glace de viande), will get the idea. It's only one or two steps more to dehydrate it altogether. That's been around for centuries. It was first recorded in the 17th century in the works of English food writer Anne Blencowe. Known as portable soup, it was popular with sailors and explorers. In 1881 a household guide recommended it as exceedingly convenient for private families. Just add water and salt. Ha! You sure wouldn't add salt today.

When, in the 19th century, three French chefs attempted to patent their cubes they were turned down because the idea wasn't new. Enter German chemist, Justus von Liebig. In 1840 he developed a concentrated meat extract, of rather better quality, and therefore more expensive, than existing brands. He established his business, Extract of Meat Company in the UK. In 1899 the trademark Oxo was registered. That still wasn't the stock cube as we know it today, but the race was on. (Some say that the cube was first made by Escoffier; however, as there are others who believe he invented the wheel, I'm not convinced.)

The early 20th century was the boom time. In addition to Oxo, you had Maggi and Knorr. We are told that by 1913 at least ten brands were available and, here's the rub, the salt content varied between 59 and 72%. But it was Liebig's company which clearly had the marketing flair.

The Oxo Tower, London

Coca-Cola make claims to be the first commercial sponsors of the Olympic Games; however, Oxo probably got there first. We know that they sponsored the London Olympic Games of 1908 (alongside Odol mouthwash and Indian Foot Powder), and that marathon runners were supplied with Oxo drinks. In 1920 the company acquired a site on the south bank of the Thames and, with a piece of advertising genius, erected a tower which bore the name of their product. A century later it still dominates the skyline.

Vegan Beef Flavoured Cube - I kid you not

So there you have it. As with anything involving Big Food plc, the product has changed hands on a number of occasions. In 1924 it was bought by a company which merged with Brooke Bond, which in turn was acquired by Unilever (who own Knorr). Then flogged to Campbells Soup, then to Premier Foods, whose portfolio includes Cadbury, Be-Ro and Mr Kipling.

The ingredients of an Oxo cube are salt, wheat flour, maize starch, flavour enhancers (621,627), colour (150c), yeast extract, vegetable oil, flavourings (including beef flavour), autolysed yeast extract, sugar, acidity regulator (270), onion powder, mineral salt (508). I took this from their website. You'll note that salt is the very first item listed. It's a very long way from glace de viande.


  1. Michael Greenlaw on 10th May 2023 at 10:40 pm

    Was there a connection with oxen? Or have I just assumed that – and is there much difference with Bovril – which as the name suggests also has a bovine connection. I used to take Oxo cubes to the hills as a warming bothy drink.

    • Tom Johnston on 11th May 2023 at 11:37 am

      Portable soup indeed. Nobody really knows the origin of the name, but I guess it’s the oxen connection.

  2. Paul Robertson on 11th May 2023 at 7:40 am

    I am afraid I am a frequent user of OXO cubes. I have a small square OXO tin ( a promotional tool which I have had for decades) which holds the 4 OXO flavours of Beef, Chicken, Lamb and Vegetable. If I am cooking something along the lines of a casserole I will certainly use an OXO cube. They have heeded the comments on salt and you can buy the meat and chicken cubes with a reduced salt recipe.
    As far as ham is concerned I use a Knorr cube which really adds to a soup.

  3. Tom J on 11th May 2023 at 4:02 pm

    I’m losing it. After agonising long and hard about O, I note that O for Orange appeared in February. Doh!

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