I love this song by Ane Brun – listen to it here on Youtube
“He falls asleep on her chest, The best sleep he’d ever met. Nevertheless he dreams of some stranger’s caress. He awakes and he knows maybe someone else is supposed to meet his hazy anticipating eyes. He draws the curtains aside unfolding the first morning light. He glances at his disenchanted life. Restlessness is me, you see, it’s hard to be safe, it’s difficult to be happy. It’s the changing of the seasons he says ‘I need them’ – I guess I’m too Scandinavian. The relief of spring, intoxication of summer rain. The clearness of fall. How winter makes me reconsider it all. Restlessness is me, you see, it’s hard to be safe It’s difficult to be happy. And then she awakes, reaches for the embrace he decides not to worry about seasons again”.
I can feel the season changing and although I am a summer bird, I welcome the change in the air. I love the deep red/gold of the fields of stubble in the dusk. I love the smell of big dark raindrops on dry earth. I regret and yet I love the dark furrows of the plough on the fields and the long purple shadows of oak trees stretching across grass. It entices me to get in the kitchen with piles of produce – beans, onions, peppers and apples, sweetcorn and beetroot, pots of spices and jars of vinegar. Out with the preserving pan, dust off the mobile gas ring (much more efficient for this job than my ceramic hob) and off we go.
Pickles and chutneys are the very essence of alchemy. Making them is not, in my house, a precise science. Like most of my cooking it is achieved through the senses rather than the weighing scale. It depends how spicy, how tart, how hot, how deep, how fresh you want your preserves to taste. And the only way of knowing is to keep making them. Forget. Then remember again a couple of years later.
Piccalilli (thanks to my personal lexicographers Sue and Shirl), this year, was a wonderful blend of runner beans sold at someone’s gateway, cauliflower from my garden – slightly ‘gone over’ as we say in Norfolk – opened up and the edges just about to turn purple, onion and black podded beans. I made some brine (3tbsp salt in a cup of hot water then mixed with about 1 litre of cold) then sliced all my vegetables into the brine and left them overnight. In the morning I drained and rinsed them, then put a mixture of spices in the preserving pan.
This is where the alchemy comes in – and you are going to have to choose how to replicate the flavour you prefer. For me, it was about 3tbsp coriander seed, a large sprinkle of dried chilli flakes. 3 tbsp black mustard seed, 2 tbsp English mustard powder, 2 tbsp ground turmeric, mixed with 750ml white distilled vinegar (absolutely not brown fish-and-chip vinegar) and 175g light raw cane muscovado sugar. Bring all this to the boil, stirring gently and let it boil away for a couple of minutes. This simply lets some of the rawness of the vinegar calm down a bit. Then take off the heat and carefully add all your prepared vegetables. Bring gently to the boil again and cook for about 15 minutes. Lots of recipes tell you to cook for longer, but I think it completely boils the character out of the vegetables. I prefer my piccalilli hot, yellow, crunchy and tasty, not mushy and pale green. Take off the heat and let it settle and then judge for yourself how thick is the sauce. The idea is that the sauce is thick but not gloopy. But definitely not runny. Remember that the vegetables will rise to the surface whilst cooking so there might be more liquid in the bottom than you think there is. So stir it around and see.
In my alchemy rule book I will always put slightly less liquid in at the beginning than I think I need – because not only will the vegetables will rise to the surface but they will also reduce in size). If you think you have too much liquid you can remove some with a large spoon. Then, mix some of it with a couple of tablespoons of cornflour and return to the pan, bring slowly to the boil for the final time until the sauce thickens. When that happens, cook for one more minute then allow to stand for a good 15 minutes without disturbing it.
My habit with glass jars, whether for pickles or jam, is to wash them in very hot water, rinse and dry them then put in the microwave and give them a blast on ‘high’ for a couple of minutes.
After 15 minutes you can decant the piccalilli into the jars. When they are full, give each one a sharp tap on the work surface to bring any air bubbles to the surface, then add a lid and you are done.
Green Tomato Chutney. For years – and particularly in the ’80s – my heart used to sink when I heard those words. For I was reluctantly, rather than gratefully, about to receive yet another pale annual offering in a jar from a neighbour who laboured under the illusion that her green tomato chutney was divine. I could not refuse. But I did not agree!
Last year, unlike this, I had a glut of tomatoes, many of which I ended up putting into carrier bags and freezing them whole. The red ones have subsequently been turned into passata, tomato soup, tomatoes braised in butter, garlic and basil etc etc. Today it poured with rain all day – a perfect day for green tomato chutney making.
Into the preserving pan went about 1.5kg frozen green tomatoes, 2kg frozen red tomatoes, 500g frozen green plums, one chopped onion, 6 windfall cooking apples (on the small side, shaken off too soon by last night’s storm), a good sprinkle of chilli flakes, 2 tbsp fennel seed, 1 tbsp cumin seed, 1 tbsp ground cumin, three fat cloves of smoked garlic from the Isle of Wight, 1 cinnamon stick and two knobbly bits of peeled fresh ginger (don’t chop it up – more on that later), 1litre white distilled vinegar, 1tbsp salt and 175g light raw cane muscovado sugar. Mix it all together and off we go. Yes. The fruits were whole and frozen. No the ginger wasn’t chopped.
I brought it all to the boil and then settled it down to a gentle simmer for 2-3 hours. Chutney such as this (unlike the fresh Indian chutneys) should be dark and full of flavour. Cooking these proportions of vinegar and sugar over a long period makes something quite magical happen to the liquid. It deepens and darkens, becomes unctious and glossy. But – I hear you ask – what happens to the frozen fruit? It simply reduces itself to a mush, including the skins surprisingly enough. So you don’t need to defreeze and chop. And what of the large knobbly bits of ginger, you retort? Fish them out carefully and chop them up at the end of the cooking process, then return to the pan. That way you get a hot fresh gingery hit occasionally, rather than simply having ginger in the mix. They will be easy to identify because as everything reduces, the ginger doesn’t – in fact it plumps up in the liquid. The plum stones also rise to the surface so simply pick them out. By the way, don’t be tempted to use powdered ginger – do you want your chutney to taste like a cake?
The same rule applies as for the piccalilli ie the solids will rise to the surface. so make sure you know how much liquid is really in that pan before you decide to pot it up. Leave it to stand for 15 minutes before you do so.
Remember – everyone’s preserves are different. You can make your mark by using the ingredients you have available and adjusting the spices and seasonings to your own taste. The key is understanding how much liquid to use, and how long to cook. In my unwritten rulebook the answers to those two conundrums are less than you think for the first, and longer than you dare for the second.