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Think of a ketchup factory, and you might conjure up images of a vast concrete universe, maybe Henry Ford, maybe Fritz Lang steampunk if you're lucky. But probably not the actual place in Sierra Madre where Molonay Tubilderborst (yes, that's the name of a ketchup, not a Peter Jackson creature) is made.

Ketchup-maker Nick Coe makes his $7 artisan ketchup in the gorgeous foothills of the San Gabriels, beside an olive grove in a place that looks more like a bed-and-breakfast with a quaint U-pick farm in back. Vintage vehicles sit prettily in an old garage. Old marmalade jars and an even older linograph are part of a little de facto museum in the back of what actually is a factory, albeit a very small, impossibly charming one. 


E. Waldo Ward marmalade and food preserving factory, Sierra Madre.; Credit: Michael Linder

E. Waldo Ward marmalade and food preserving factory, Sierra Madre.; Credit: Michael Linder

All this is because Coe, a former chef  (“my first kitchen job was at the original Spago”) now spends his days making ketchup at the hundred-year-old E. Waldo Ward marmalade and food preserving factory, up in a tree-lined, mostly residential quadrant of Sierra Madre. 

Go past the old house, the front of which is a small retail shop that does indeed resemble a little B&B, and go back through the building until you get into the rooms that house the bottling plant. Inside the giant kettles, Coe and his team make what is some pretty stunning ketchup, using heirloom organic tomatoes that Coe sources from the Central Valley.

35% of the world's sauce tomatoes are produced by California's Central Valley, says Coe, as he roams around the facility, happily geeking out on the equipment and products. Next to a woman filling glass jars with olives, one by one with tweezers, there's a refractometer to check the sugar levels. There are those enormous steam kettles and giant homemade emersion blenders — each of which look kind of like an Evenrude crossed with your little KitchenAid. Coe says he has two pages of government regulations on “ketchup identity.” 

The identity of Coe's ketchup doesn't need two pages. It all began with a 1920s ketchup recipe and, once, a surfeit of heirloom tomatoes back in 2011 when Molonay Tubilderborst was a traveling pop-up.

Molonay Tubilderborst was a '30s-era European gourmand.; Credit: Michael Linder

Molonay Tubilderborst was a '30s-era European gourmand.; Credit: Michael Linder

So what's in a bottle of $7 ketchup? That organic tomato paste, plus sea salt, turbinado sugar and spices, which include onion, bell pepper, mustard flour, celery seed, paprika and red and black pepper — AND some other stuff, which isn't on there because its a “proprietary secret.” Chefs love that kind of thing, don't they.

All we can say is that it's some pretty lovely, aromatic stuff that Coe mixes into his ketchup before it gets cooked down for four hours, then bottled in the nifty factory, the bottles moving off on what looks like your kid's train track, the caps all put on by hand. There are three flavors of the stuff (savory, the original; curry, with Madras curry; and spicy, with Bird's Eye chiles). Coe says it's all so lovely and concentrated that you don't need a ton of it, and thus you won't blow through your expensive bottle too quickly.

“This does not taste like crappy tomato sauce,” Coe says, as deadpan as he can manage with a shower cap on his head. 

As for the wacky name on the label, it's a retro throwback as much as the condiment itself is meant to be. Coe identifies Tubilderborst as a '30s-era European gourmand (an English gentleman with ties to “a family of itinerant conjurers in Tashkent”), though he's probably got some ties to P.G. Wodehouse as well. Just try saying it three times fast, although if your mouth is full of tonkatsu pork, which Coe likes with his curry ketchup, then you're going to have a hard time regardless. Maybe just eat your dinner.

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