Pep up your plate with chutney

Sandy Neil tastes some banana chutney at the international chutney festival in Peebles.
Sandy Neil tastes some banana chutney at the international chutney festival in Peebles.

There is nothing finer, after having a good stock up your sleeve, than having a reserve of chutney. Throughout Britain and the world, there’s a history of pairing cooked food with this perky condiment.

The word chutney derives from the Hindi chatni in India, where chutneys are served with almost every meal, especially as relishes with curries. Generally, Indian meals consist of a meat dish, a vegetable dish, bread and/or rice, a pulse dish, a yoghurt relish for a cooling contrast, and a fresh chutney or small, relish-like salad. Chutneys serve to tease the palate with sharp contrasts of sweet, sour, hot and salty flavours, and make it possible to vary one bite from the next on the same plate of food.

Chutney, or achaar, is also a traditional dish in Nepal, where there are thousands of varieties, with each ethnic group or family possessing their own recipe. Pickles and chutneys, called turshi (meaning ‘sour’) and chutni, are also an essential part of Afghan food; rarely is a meal served without one homemade speciality. In Sri Lanka and Indonesia, a sambol is a relish to spice up everyday meals, and must be, they say, the colour ‘of a Buddhist monk’s robes’. In the same spirit is the Mexican salsa, used as a dip or spooned over quesadillas or tortilla chips. Cooked mango or papaya chutneys are common in the Caribbean with ham, pork and fish, and chutneys are also widely used in South Africa.

Chutney recipes imported during Britain’s colonial era (along with curry dishes) became popular at home, and a commercially made mango chutney, Major Grey’s Chutney, became the British standard – the Branston Pickle in the days of Empire. Here, of course, chutney is an excellent way to preserve seasonal gluts of fruit or vegetables, in order to enjoy them during the colder months or pot up as gifts to friends.

Chutney is simply a mixture of fruit and vegetables cooked with vinegar, sugar and spices to the consistency of jam, with an easy-peasy list of cooking tips. Chutneys are even more obliging than pickles, because the ingredients need not be perfect or fresh.

Huge overgrown courgettes, marrows, pumpkins and squashes all make excellent chutneys with a luscious texture. Windfall apples and plums, rhubarb past its prime, and green tomatoes are obvious candidates as well, and so, too, are green gooseberries, under-ripe plums, green mangoes, hard peaches and apricots. Cut away any bits that are bruised, overripe, mouldy or rotten, and chop the veg and fruit into small pieces, and cook until soft but still identifiable.

Acetic acid in the vinegar corrodes metals such as brass, copper and iron to produce a taste as bitter as wormwood, so use aluminium, or unchipped enamel pans for cooking chutneys or for boiling spiced vinegars for pickles – and remember to use a nylon sieve for straining too. The cover must be airtight because vinegar evaporates, which dries and shrinks your precious chutney and pickles. Chutneys (not the fresh kind) benefit from being aged for at least six months or even years to let the flavours marry and mature.

A robust chutney or pickle, rich in spices, gives an inestimable pep to cheese, pâté and cold meat or fish. Recipes vary in fieriness, sweetness and sourness, depending on the tastes of the ‘chutter’. You can make your own concoction using any fruit or veg, and a constellation of spices: cinnamon stick, root ginger, allspice berries, black and white peppercorns, mustard seeds, celery seeds, nutmeg, chillis, cayenne pepper, mace, cloves, paprika, and cardamom seeds.

Chutneys are as numberless as combinations of fruits, vegetables and spices. The 120 different chutney varieties entered in the One World One Chutney Awards at Neidpath Castle’s Chutney Festival in Peebles last weekend gave a taste of this infinitude.

Beside the classic apple, pear, plum, marrow and tomato sat jars of damson, Gurkha lime achar, mango with whisky, banana and habanero, elderberry, beetroot and horseradish, Bhut Naga chilli and tomato, Cumbrian apple ‘Bengali’, hot aubergine, cranberry and port, apricot and Norfolk Ale, Blairgowrie Berry with brambles, raspberries, strawberries and blueberries, and peach with tamarind and pine nuts – to name just a few.

This year the international chutney champions (entries were posted from as far as China, Zimbabwe and Turkey) were, in the ‘Scary’ or amateur category, Helen Bell of the Dancing Light Gallery at Whitmuir Organics near Lamancha for her pear, apple and tomato chutney, and Victoria Cranfield’s Gardener’s Relish won first prize in the ‘Posh’ or professional class.

Second prize in the professional chutney-makers’ category went to a red and yellow pepper chutney made and sold by The Orchard: a greengrocer in Biggar whose jams, jellies and preserves go under the name Biggar Flavour.

Third prize was picked up by a roasted nectarine chutney with red onion, rosemary, cumin and fennel by Radnor Preserves near Powys in the Welsh Borders.

One World One Chutney was conceived by Lulu Benson and Catherine Fairbairn, whose hard work making this, the first international chutney festival, such a success means that any future chutney champs can look forward to a second chance next year again at Neidpath Castle.

The annual wooden spoon trophy, engraved with the winners’ names, will sit bathed in glory and honour within Peebles’ spectacular medieval tower.