This article first appeared in Country Small Holding magazine in he Autumn of 2010
At this time of year, the spherical rock we cling to on its journey through space begins to tilt away from the sun making the nights longer, the days shorter and the likelihood of needing a coat and hat when stepping outside all the more present. With these celestial changes also come changes back down on earth as the lack of light makes everything in the garden grow a lot more slowly.
This slowed growth has a knock on effect on our diet and for those wishing to be more self-sufficient in food it means winter greens, pumpkins and squashes and of course raiding the store cupboard for the whole myriad of preserves including pickles, chutneys and perhaps food from the freezer.
There is no real secret to making good chutney- it has to be sweet, it has to be spicy and it has to have enough vinegar to prevent any microorganisms moving in and creating a huge extended family. As a rule of thumb I add around half as much vinegar as the main ingredient and do the same with the sugar. In practice this means cutting up a load of apples, covering them in vinegar and stirring in as much brown sugar that will happily dissolve. I like to add whole coriander and mustard seeds and I usually bung in a little grated ginger, chopped chilli and if I have them to hand some raisins. Cook the whole thing up for around an hour and store in a sterilized jar (I usually sterilize by pouring boiling water in the jar just before I fill it with chutney).
The combination of vinegar, spices and sugar seems to set off just about any mix of fruit and/or vegetable and it seems there are few combinations that don’t work. So, if you have an abundance of say apples and marrows then it looks like apple and marrow chutney may be on the menu over winter! I find it very difficult not to try chutney as soon as it is made, even burning my tongue in haste to eat it. However, unlike a bad joke, they do seem to get much better with age. It can taste as if the spices have seeped into every inch of the jar, deepening and enriching the chutney as it does so. The vinegar also softens things up and the result can simply melt in the mouth.
It may be getting a little late in the season to make certain jams but there are some very simple ways to ensure a perfect jar every time. The classic recipe is to add as much sugar in weight as fruit, simmer on a medium heat and then boil hard until setting point is reached (setting point where a dollop of jam will go wrinkly on a cold plate). If you seem to be boiling and boiling without the jam ever setting it could be due to lack of sugar but more likely it is down to lack of pectin.
Pectin can be seen as a natural ‘glue’, it is the substance which holds cells together and the substance which helps to set jam. Harder fruit such as apples and pears have more pectin than softer fruit such as plums or raspberries. Therefore combining a soft and hard fruit should ensure there is enough pectin to set the jam. Putting a chopped apple into a pan of elderberry jam can contain enough pectin to make it set.
If you have any recipes for jams, pickles or chutneys we’d love to here from you, either here or in our forum.