Chutney, and old-fashioned flavors

Palm Digital Media has been giving away a free ebook a day for the "12 days of Christmas". One of the free books was Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott. I hadn't read it in quite a long time, and it was like visiting an old friend from my childhood to do so now. Its slightly preachy, rather sappy and quite Victorian tone is really perfect for the Christmas season.

What caught my eye food-wise was the chapter where Amy, the youngest March sister, goes to school with a bag of pickled limes, which are the "in" thing amongst her friends. The teacher finds out, and makes her thrown them out of the schoolroom window, two by two:

There was a simultaneous sigh, which created quite a little gust, as the last hope fled, and the treat was ravished from their longing lips. Scarlet with shame and anger, Amy went to and fro six dreadful times, and as each doomed couple, looking oh, so plump and juicy, fell from her reluctant hands, a shout from the street completed the anguish of the girls, for it told them that their feast was being exulted over by the little Irish children, who were their sworn foes. This--this was too much. All flashed indignant or appealing glances at the inexorable Davis, and one passionate lime lover burst into tears.

I've long wondered about those pickled limes. When I was little, I couldn't fathom the idea that something sour could be so coveted by young girls of 11 and 12. So I thought that surely pickled limes would be sweet. But it does seem that pickled limes were in fact sour and salty. This page has a recipe, including an assurance that these are indeed the pickled limes of Little Women. I'll have to try it sometime, though I think I'd leave out the modern addition of garlic.

As in many other things, there seem to be fashions in taste. Sour isn't that fashionable at the moment, especially since balsamic vinegar and other flavored vinegars were way too overused by the trendies a few years back. But sour can be a wonderful counterbalance to sweet, oily, or simply stodgy.

Chutney is an old fashioned condiment, Indian in origin but adopted and adapted quite enthusiastically by the British, that combines sour, hot and sweet flavors in a most satisfying way. This version, called The Major's Chutney, uses very European ingredients so is more British than Indian. It really perks up leftover meat, especially turkey, it's a great addition to a curry (just add a tablespoon or two), and an interesting condiment for many other things. It also lasts for a long time, properly sealed up in preserving jars. I make a batch of this stuff every year, and whatever is left over from last year's batch simply gets added to the new batch. Compared to other preserves it's quite hassle-free. It also makes a great gift, providing you know that the person you're giving it to likes sour - sweet - spicy things, or is British.

The Major's Chutney

I'm not sure where I got this recipe from. I know it was from a magazine, but I wrote it down and have lost the original clipping. It certainly was a British magazine though.

This makes quite a big batch, so have plenty of canning jars on hand. The size of the jars is up to you - I use 1 litre jars, since I can use up a jar pretty easily within a couple of weeks once opened.

  • About 4 lbs. / 1.8 kg of plums, halved and pitted. By plums I mean the black kind (called Zwetschgen in Switzerland, as opposed to Pflaumen, which are yellow.)
  • About 3 lbs. / 1.4 kg of apples, peeled, cored and cut into chunks. Use a pretty sour firm apple like Gala, Jonagold, Granny Smith or (if you can get them outside of the UK) Bramleys. Don't use a sweet, softish apple like Golden Delicious.
  • 1 lb / 450 g of chopped onions
  • 1 lb / 450 g of raisins, black or golden (sultanas)
  • 4-6 garlic cloves, chopped
  • A big piece of fresh ginger, chopped
  • 12 whole cloves
  • 1 Tbs of crushed black peppercorns
  • 6 dried red chiles or 1 Tbs of red pepper flakes
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • 2 pints / 1.2 litre of vinegar. I use cider vinegar. The original recipe called for malt vinegar, which is hard to get here. Red wine vinegar would do well also.
  • 2 lb / 900 g of brown sugar. Again, it's not easy to get 'soft brown sugar' here - if you can get it, by all means use it (the dark kind). I use something called Rohzucker, which is brown unrefined sugar.

The most work you have to do for this recipe is all the chopping. Once that's all done, put it all (except for the sugar) into a big, non-aluminum pot with a thick bottom. (Acid and aluminum don't go well together.) Bring it to a boil, simmer until the fruit and onions etc. are tender (about 20-30 minutes), then add the sugar. Stir to dissolve the sugar, then let it simmer for...well, quite a while. How long sort of depends on how juicy your apples and things were, but it should turn quite thick, and a dark, glossy brown with purple tones. Expect about 1-2 hours at least. Don't let it burn on the bottom, and stir every once in a while.

Your house will not exactly smell wonderful, unless you like an overwhelming smell of vinegar. But it will be worth it.

Wipe the jars off carefully so there's no stickiness outside, and store in a cool, dark place. (we store it in the cellar). Preferably, chutney should be left to mature for a couple of weeks though of course you can eat it immediately. It improves with age indefinitely.

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