The Tomato Chutney Dowry

Running out of tomato chutney is grounds for divorce in our house.

Matthew and I met in Geneva when he was working for the Australian Mission to the UN and I was working for the Brits. He had recently broken up with a long time girlfriend and I was also footloose and fancy free when a mutual friend invited us to a tramps and tarts party. When I look at the photos from that night I wonder how the chutney ever came into it. My skirt was only just long enough to be decent.

My father left the RAF after the War, to help his father run the family nursery, which he eventually took over. To earn pocket money I worked on Saturday mornings in the shop where we sold tomatoes, cucumbers and salad ingredients in summer and cut chrysanthemums and potted cyclamen in winter. Grandpa sat in the corner of the shop. He appeared to be dozing, but in fact he was watching me like a hawk. The tomatoes were weighed to order and the adding up was done in your head. Quite a challenge for an 11 year old. “You put one too many in that last pound of tomatoes. If you do that every time, you’ll put us out of business” Grandpa would say.

Dad’s mother Jessie was from Falkirk, just outside Edinburgh, and she was an excellent cook. Grandpa met her when he was in charge of the gardens at Battle Abbey in Sussex and she was running the dairy. I often wonder how a young Scottish lass ended up working nearly 500 miles away from home, but by the time I wanted to ask she had been dead for many years.

My mother grew up in Malta where her father was stationed during the War. Strict rationing meant she was never allowed to cook, in case she ruined precious ingredients. When they decided to get married, my Dad asked his future bride if she could cook. When she said no he thought she was being modest – but she wasn’t.

His mother had learned many skills from working in the dairy of a stately home, including how to make butter into swans for afternoon tea. In the early years of my parents’ marriage, my mother grew sick of hearing my father waxing lyrical about the swans. “If you want swans made of butter you’d better go back,” she used to say, teasingly. Fortunately, Nana took Mum under her wing and taught her to make a few basic recipes, so we wouldn’t starve.

Once a year Dad would bring in a couple of boxes of slightly over-ripe tomatoes and it became a ritual for the whole family to make several batches of tomato chutney using his mother’s recipe. When I got to Geneva I continued to make tomato chutney, despite living in a tiny bed-sit with only two hotplates.

Soon after we met, Matthew and I rented a ski chalet in La Clusaz for a week with a group of friends. It was self-catering so everyone brought food. As he was unpacking my box of contributions Matthew found a jar of tomato chutney. “What’s this?” he asked, so I told him. Before you could say Jack Robinson he had unscrewed the lid, eaten a spoonful and hidden the jar in one of the top cupboards. “Too good for that lot” he said “”they’ll polish it off in one sitting.”

The tomato chutney goes well with cheese, ham and other cold meats. Over the years I’ve only made two slight adjustments, using cider vinegar instead of dark malt vinegar and cutting down a bit on the sugar and salt. It’s crucial to use vine-ripened, very red, tasty tomatoes. The hard, orange, tasteless ones you buy in supermarkets in winter will produce a very mediocre chutney.

Matthew and I met in October and married the following May – quick work, especially since he left Geneva in early January, having come to the end of his posting. He returned in May to get married, having discovered he couldn’t live without me – or was it the chutney?

Tomato chutney with cheddar cheese on crusty sourdough bread

Tomato Chutney

3 kg ripe tomatoes
1 kg peeled green apples (see note below)
500g peeled onions
500g seedless raisins
750g dark brown sugar
4 tsp salt
600 ml cider vinegar
2 rounded Tbs pickling spices (see recipe below)
4 Tbs whole yellow mustard seeds

You will need a large preserving pan with a heavy base for this recipe. Mine is stainless steel and has a diameter of 33cm and a height of 15cm. It holds about 7 litres. Alternatively make half the recipe in a large heavy-based saucepan.

Pour boiling water over tomatoes and leave for a couple of minutes, then remove skins and chop. Core and chop the apples and chop the onions. Place pickling spices in a muslin bag or tie them in an old cotton handkerchief. Place all ingredients except mustard seeds in preserving pan.

Cook for about an hour at a steady boil, until thick. Stir regularly to prevent sticking, especially towards the end. Meanwhile place sufficient clean jars (without their lids) in the oven set to 120°C. Or you can zap them in the microwave on High for 2 minutes. How many jars you use will depend on the size of the jars.

When chutney is cooked remove pickling spices, squeezing the bag so any juices go back into the chutney, then discard the spices. Stir in mustard seeds and pour into the hot sterilized jars using a small jug. Poke a knife down right to the bottom of each jar, all the way around the edge, to remove any air bubbles. Seal jars with the lids and store in a dark cupboard. Keeps for at least 12 months.

Note: Apples which go mushy when cooked, such as English Bramleys, are best, but they are hard to find in Australia. We’ve planted a tree and should get our first crop in a year or two. Alternatively use Granny Smiths, although the apples will stay in pieces when cooked. Sultanas can be used instead of raisins, but they are not quite as nice.

Makes 6-8 standard jam jars

Pickling Spices

1 tsp whole cloves (1 Tbs)
2 Tbs broken up cinnamon sticks (8 Tbs)
2 Tbs dried bay leaves, broken up (8 Tbs)
1 Tbs whole black peppercorns (4 Tbs)
2 tsp crushed dried birds-eye chillies (2 Tbs)
2 Tbs whole pimento (allspice) (8 Tbs)
2 tsp fennel seeds (2 Tbs)

Mix and keep in a jar. If the cinnamon sticks are very hard you may need to hit them with a meat mallet to break them up. I usually make 4 times the recipe at a time for which quantities are in brackets. Pimento (also known as Allspice) look like very large black peppercorns.

Pineapple Chutney

This chutney is adapted from a recipe in this month’s Delicious magazine. It’s very quick to make and great to have around at Christmas or to give to friends as a gift. The original recipe didn’t have any chilli, so just leave it out if you’re not into spicy food.

1 x 825g can pineapple in natural juice or light syrup (or 2 smaller cans)
4 Tbs Hoisin sauce
3 Tbs honey
3 Tbs soy sauce
2 star anise
2 Tbs chopped fresh ginger
1 tsp Chinese five spice powder
1 Tbs crushed chilli (buy it in a jar or process some fresh ones)

In some countries you can buy crushed pineapple, but if yours is in slices or rings, place in food processor and chop finely.  Place in a large heavy-bottomed pan with remaining ingredients. Simmer for 15-20 minutes, stirring regularly, or until thickened and looking a bit sticky around the edges. Discard star anise. Place a few small jam jars without their lids in microwave and “cook” for a minute or two. This will heat and sterilize them. Fill with chutney and seal while hot. Serve with cold ham, pork, turkey, duck or chicken.  Will keep for several months. Refrigerate after opening.

Makes about 4 cups

Note: if you prefer the chutney to be yellow in colour use white soy sauce, sugar instead of  honey and omit the hoisin sauce.