There’s something deeply satisfying about chutney-making. Just as you start journeying home in the dark, and fretting about whether you can afford to turn on the central heating, there’s nothing like a strict deadline to kick you out of your SAD. And an enormous sense of gratification can be felt when placing the jars in a dark cupboard, knowing they’ll be preparing for Christmas over the next few months. It brings to mind all my childhood romance of Victorian Christmases, with robins sitting on snowy red letterboxes outside, and lit candles decorating pine trees (actually, this was probably never a good idea).
I’m no keener than anyone else on shops stocking advent calendars before the end of October, but nothing makes winter more bearable than starting, in some small way, to look ahead to Christmas. I also see chutney-making as an apt goodbye to summer, with the sunshine of summer trapped in the firm flesh of ripe squashes and tomatoes.
The process of making chutney is really simple, essentially just the assembly of vegetables, vinegars and spices. Chopping the vegetables probably involves the most faff, especially if there are lots of onions involved. I usually have to leave the room for a little while after that. But after the ingredients have been pieced together, all that’s left is to turn on the heat. There is nothing more satisfying that this, I promise. The chutney then busies itself getting ready for a few hours, as it will in your darkened cupboard for the next few months.
Our yearly tradition is this wonderful smokey tomato chutney by Delia. This year was the first time we had genuine pimentón, which I picked up in Barcelona, though it is available in the UK, and I think you can get it from Waitrose. We’ve so far been ad-hocking with a smoked paprika, a hot paprika and a sweet paprika. All this has resulted in me now owning six different kinds of paprika, which I think could be a little excessive.
Anyway, as I explained before, this is really just a case of toasting and crushing the spices, chopping the vegetables and assembling the ingredients in a heavy-bottomed pan. We usually make double this so we can give some as presents, and we would make even more than that but we’ve only got two heavy-bottomed pans. We’re particularly paranoid about this after a failed attempt at jam destroyed a Le Creuset casserole dish a few years ago.
The part that tends to put most people off is the actual jarring of the chutney. This actually isn’t too bad, and it’s really rewarding seeing the product of your work become something that can actually fill jars. Sterilising them only consists of washing the jars in soapy water and putting them in the oven at a low temperature for a few minutes. The hotter the jar, the easier it will be to make the waxed disc stick, though we also usually heat a plastic-handled knife over the hob for a few seconds and then use that to press down on the disc and make the wax melt, which is quite fun.
I highly recommend listening to Ella Fitzgerald while doing it. It makes me feel like a completely domesticated 50s housewife, like Julianne Moore in ‘Far From Heaven’ but with less emotional pain. This is one of my dreams, like being a journalist, a cheesemaker and a cattery-owner. Making chutney is a ridiculously simple way of making you feel like a proper person, basically, someone who might bring freshly-baked cupcakes to a new neighbour, or at least doesn’t have two weeks of washing sprawled over their bedroom floor.
This chutney is particularly easy, and does everything we originally wanted from a chutney; basically a nice tomato chutney that goes with everything and isn’t over-laden with sugar, the way most shop-bought brands tend to be.This year’s may be our best yet, with the addition of a few more mustard seeds than the recipe specifies, and with more genuine ingredients. Without using a food processor, ours is chunkier than Delia’s, but that could be a good thing. In the next few weeks I’m going to be experimenting with all kinds of chutneys, maybe a fig, maybe a beetroot. This will all contribute to some kind of Christmas hamper I can give my huge family and feel less guilty about not being able to afford decent presents.