Say the word chutney and immediately different definitions and images spring to mind. Is it a slow cooked, rich, bright and evenly coloured chutney in a jar? Is it prepared, cooked and finished quickly with a chunky, dry consistency and uneven colour? Does it have a balanced flavour or does the flavour disappoint even after leaving it for a few months to mature?

Of all the preserves I make each year, chutney is the one which causes the most confusion amongst preservers and the authors of recipes. Search the BBCFood website and you will find a number of chutney and relish recipes, all called chutney.

Definition

Chutney is a savoury preserve made from fruit and vegetables, cooked in vinegar, sugar and spices. Smooth in texture, no large pieces of fruit, vegetables, fruit skins, cores or stones. No excess liquid or air bubbles. The flavour is a mature balance of all the ingredients in the jar.

Origins

The word Chutney comes from the Hindi chatni, which means “to be licked”. Used as a condiment, it is made from a mixture of spices and fruit or vegetables. The English East India Company was responsible for introducing chutney to the wider world. Merchants from the company introduced a chatni made from mango to seventeenth century England. Considered a luxury item at the time, it was not possible for home cooks to get hold of mangoes to make the condiment. An alternative product was made by removing the centres of marrows, cucumbers, melons, lemons and peaches, and filling them with onions and spices. The heat from chilli was mimicked with mustard. Over time, apples, plums, damsons, gooseberries, tomatoes, beetroot and dried fruit became popular ingredients for chutney.

Chutney Recipes

Traditional chutney recipes have three stages: preparing the fruit and vegetables, gently cooking the ingredients and finishing by potting and storing. The majority of the chutney recipes in my books take 2-3 hours to make. The majority of relish recipes presented as chutneys will take well under an hour to make, and some 15-20 minutes.

Preparation

Most of the fruit and vegetables are finely chopped, or minced. A food processor will help if you have one. Fruits that break down easily, when cooked are roughly chopped or halved. Harder fruits and vegetables, cooking apples, pears, dates and peppers are often softened by gentle cooking in a covering of water. This creates the pulpy appearance of the ingredients during the early stages of cooking the chutney. If harder fruits and vegetables are not softened, the ingredients may remain chunky and undercooked.

Cooking

The chief preservatives in chutney are vinegar and sugar. If there is insufficient vinegar in the recipe, the chutney will finish cooking too quickly. Many recipes add the sugar at the start of cooking. I prefer to add it towards the end of cooking, if added too soon it often caramelises the flavour and toughens the fruit or vegetables. Spices should be added at the beginning. The aim is to create a balanced flavour, not one dominated by sweetness, spice or vinegar.

Finishing

A chutney is ready for bottling when all the excess liquid has evaporated, and the consistency is thick. The colour should be bright and even. A simple test to tell you when it is ready, is by drawing a wooden or plastic spoon through the centre ( not the base ) of the pan. If it leaves a trail, like a channel, without it filling up immediately with liquid, the chutney is ready for transferring to jars. If you want your chutney to keep, they are best potted in glass jars with new screw top lids. Re-cycled jars are fine but re-cycled lids may not seal the chutney and if not plastic-lined might corrode and cause spoilage. Traditional chutneys mature in flavour if left for 2-3 months before opening. If the recipe is a relish it is often eaten the day it’s made or refrigerated for a few weeks.

In an age of instant gratification, the popularity of quickly made recipes does not surprise me. However, so much more pleasure and satisfaction can be had from careful preparation, a slow cook, and a little wait for a real chutney.

Links

BBCFood Website For examples of pleasant products, most of which are not traditional chutneys with a good shelf life.

First Preserves: Chutneys or First Preserves: Marmlades, Jams, Chutneys, for Chutney recipes.