Bovril is a thick, black, glossy, meat-based extract that is best enjoyed with butter on toast, or, as is traditional, sipped with hot water as a kind of beef tea. It comes in a heavy cauldron-shaped jar with a chunky red lid and a no-nonsense red label. It’s also part of Britain’s culinary landscape and has a history that incorporates, improbably, both Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew, Napoleon III, and a pope.
Bovril was created by John Lawson Johnston, a 19th-century Edinburgh-based butcher with an interest in dietetics. His first “fluid of beef” creation was based on a meat glaze. Shortly after emigrating to Canada in 1871, Johnson won a contract to supply food to Napoleon III’s Army—specifically nutritious, preserved meat products. He tweaked the recipe, and Bovril was born, although it was not renamed Bovril until 1886. “Bo” came from the Latin for Ox (Bos) and “Vril” from a then-popular book that featured superior beings known as the Vrilya.
Bovril hit the sweet spot for Victorian consumers. Amid the temperance and health movements, Bovril was promoted as a constitution-boosting, meaty superfood. From the early days, Bovril was cannily marketed as a food that could make the infirm well, the elderly strong, and the young healthy. In its advertisements, Bovril—commonly represented by an Ox—was endorsed by scientists. One advertisement even claimed that “Bovril fortifies the system against influenza.”
The Bovril Company also associated itself with the military and patriotism by supplying Bovril to troops during the Boer War army. Later, in 1916, the company ran a full-page advertisement in the Daily Express showing a bull proclaiming: “If you can’t go yourself, you might want to send ME—I hear they want more BOVRIL at the Front.”
Bovril even appealed to the famous. Ernest Shackleton ate Bovril during his 1902 Antarctic expedition. Pope Leo XIII was depicted (without his permission) drinking Bovril with the slogan: “Two Infallible Powers: The Pope and Bovril,” and famous Victorian strongman Eugen Sandow claimed Bovril gave him strength. By this time, Johnston had moved to England, and the beef tea business paid off: In 1896, he sold Bovril for £2 million and died in 1900, in Cannes, on a yacht.
Like its fellow dark, salty spreads—Promite and Vegemite—Bovril’s taste is polarizing. This is evidenced by Marmite’s marketing slogan: “You love it or you hate it.” But more than enough people love Bovril: Both beef and meat-free versions of Bovril are available on store shelves.