Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Uncanny: A Fig Chutney Lesson

Autumn is here, suddenly, vibrantly. The wind has pushed aside the summer haze. The sloping angles of the roofs against the sky are sharp, clear. Falling chestnuts are deadly (in a Bugs Bunny cartoon kind of way). My son has made a collection of the smooth dark globes, the perfect size for his small fist.

As the temperature drops, I slip into a mild culinary panic. The last of September's abundant figs, plums are disappearing - the quince, herald of a long winter's simmer, have arrived. All this makes me mourn. It also makes me realize that I've gone yet another busy summer in Provence without quite learning how to can.
I thought a book might be helpful, but the books make the same assumption – that your mother, your grandmother and your grandmother’s grandmother have been making jam since time immemorial. A book is simply an aide-memoire for something already in your blood. Sure, my grandmother’s grandmother probably knew how to make jam, but somewhere on the journey from the shtetl to suburban New Jersey, we picked up Smuckers. The French recipes are patently unhelpful: Put one kilo of fruit and one kilo of sugar in a pot. Boil. Jar. They never say much about timing, temperature – or botulism.
What I really needed was a masterclass. When in doubt, call a Brit. Mollie and David  make their own jam and chutney in neatly labeled jars. I’d been politely bugging them about it since June. Like a singing lesson with Maria Callas, I thought I should sign up early. (See that neat little wooden gizmo to the left, that's a tool to spread crepe batter that David has handily converted into a measure to show him when the vinegar syrup has properly reduced - Clearly, I have a few tricks of the trade to learn.)

As I walked in the door, I was enveloped in the steam coming from the stove – the sharp edge of vinegar and fresh ginger softened by cinnamon and the sticky slow dissolving of the figs. Mollie and David’s kitchen is the stuff of dreams. There’s a rustic front kitchen with heavy beams, well scrubbed wooden counters and a groaning red range with room for six bubbling pots. Glass front cabinets with crystal tumblers, a shelf of neatly labeled spices in squat glass jars.

Hidden discreetly behind the stove is the doorway to their secret weapon - a smaller room, a full pantry, lined floor to ceiling with white cabinets, an extra freezer and a deep slop sink. It’s like Upstairs, Downstairs, but without the servants.
By the time I arrived they had the whole thing set up like a cooking show. (David is also a very skilled photographer - some of the photos are his). There was an almost finished pot bubbling on the stove. The glass jars (sterilized in the dishwasher) were sitting snugly in a large roasting pan, covered lightly with a paper towl to keep stray insects or dust from flying in. Just beside were all the ingredients for the next batch – ready to start all over again. Just like when Nigella Lawson shows you how to make a chocolate cake and then, in the name of instant gratification and a half hour time slot, whisks a finished one from the oven just as the other goes into bake.
Mollie and David clearly had this down to a science. When the fig mixture was almost done,  Molly placed the roasting pan full of jars in a 100C oven for 10 minutes. Using a silicone oven mitt, she transferred the hot jars onto a foil lined tray and got ready to pour. The chutney was thick, like the affectionate blob in a B horror movie. Big chunks of fig slid through her flowered ceramic funnel in satisfying gloops. Every once and a while a drip would escape. "Oh Bul" -, Mollie began, stopping herself. I saw one of David’s Dickensian eyebrows shoot up. "Normally," said Mollie, 'there is a fair bit of swearing during this bit, but having you here will keep us in line."
She quickly screwed the top on with a silicone oven mit."It makes the seal as it cools down, you see. I just tried to open one of last year’s in the pantry. Couldn’t loosen it."
While Mollie was photocopying the recipe. I stared out the window of the office. The smell of a nearby pine drifted through the open window. I left the house, a warm pot of chutney in my hands, already dreaming of thick slices of sourdough bread and the butcher’s jambon aux herbes. "If you can bear the suspense." said David, "Leave it in the back of the cupboard for a few months. It’ll be that much better for Christmas.
Not sure I can wait that long...

Mollie and David's Fig Chutney

Though figs are a passion of mine, I suspect this would be equally good made with pears, quince, or even apples. With infinite thanks to Mollie and David for sharing their recipe!

A note to time starved cooks: Chutney requires patience, though not constant supervision. Make sure you have a good 3-4 hours ahead of you when you start. An excellent rainy day activity.

Red wine vinegar 3.25 litres
Light brown sugar 1.125 kg
Onions (finely chopped) 5
Fresh root ginger (finely chopped) 150 – 200 gm (to taste)
Colman's mustard powder 5 tsp
Lemon zest 1.5 lemons
Cinnamon 2.5 sticks
Coarse Sea Salt 9 tsp
Allspice 1.25 tsp
Cloves (crushed) ½ tsp
Figs 3 kg, (quartered)

In a large saucepan (stainless or enamel) combine the vinegar, sugar, onion, ginger, mustard seeds, lemon zest, cinnamon stick, salt, allspice, and cloves and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook until mixture is thickened and reduced by 2/3, forming a thick syrup. (This will take a good 90 minutes - up to 2 hours.) Add the figs and cook gently until the figs are very soft and beginning to fall apart and most of the liquid they've given off has evaporated, about 30 minutes more.

Chutney can be kept in a non reactive container in the fridge for up to three weeks. Alternately, hot chutney may be ladled into hot sterilized canning jars and processed in a hot-water bath according to manufacturer's directions.)

Makes around a dozen 340ml pots


  1. I decided to tackle canning for the first time myself after moving into a house with 4 very prolific pear trees and 1 apple to boot. I found the Bell canning book (a friend calls it her blue canning bible) very helpful. I have to admit I didn't exactly use their recipes, but the instructions for sterilizing and processing the jars were very thorough and much appreciated by this novice. Your recipe looks relish, I am filing it away for next year!

  2. How I envy your abundance of figs in Provence which I viewed last May while staying in Noves and touring the nearby villages. Fig trees everywhere! How seductive the area was!

  3. Just finished reading your book (ironically during a week when I had a rather impromptu lunch in Paris!) and just wanted to say how much I loved it. My mother and father are from different countries and I really understood the issues of different cultural attitudes to life. Will definitely be trying some of your recipes too. Thank you for such a lovely read.

  4. Dear Elizabeth, why are there no new blog entries since October? Please write again, I love your writing. I'm from Melbourne Australia and I need my French inspiration. Best regards fleur.

  5. This has been the most useful post I have ever found about canning. It is something that I want to get into to save some money around the house since I have two kids who love jam. Thank you for sharing the recipe as well.

  6. I keep hoping you will blog again!

  7. This looks very healthy and delicious. I am going to try and make some for myself as well. I can only imagine the delightful smell in the room, and the fresh and rich taste. Also as a bonus you get the satisfaction of making it on your own.

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