SPICE ADVICE

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The Independent Culture
Think of chutney as a jam created from fruit, sugar, vinegar and spices (and a jam which does not have to set) and you will realise how easy it is to make.

Unless you actually want hard, chewy bits in your chutney, first cook the main ingredients until they are soft (before adding sugar and vinegar). If the ingredient is very hard, such as onion, cook separately until soft, drain, and then add to the other ingredients.

Add sugar off the heat, stir to dissolve, and watch the pan to make sure it doesn't burn. Even when the vinegar has been added, chutney will burn if you go away to take a phone call. I speak from experience. You can either chuck it or bottle it in which case label it Smoky Chutney.

I've tried all kinds of vinegars. Cheap vinegar gives a cheap taste. But good malt vinegar is fine, and you don't need to use wine vinegar.

Sugar: brown sugars work very well, adding a dark depth of flavour to the rural variety of chutney (made with windfall apples, onions, plums, sultanas). But you should use white sugar for the more refined chutneys (what gourmets might call the single variety chutney), such as apricot, nectarine or peach.

Spicing: you'll regret putting in whole spices (mustard seeds are an exception) because they get always seem to get stuck in between your teeth. Powdered spices in the chutney may make it cloudy (except chilli powder, paprika and turmeric which colour it as well as providing flavour). The English cook's solution to this problem was to pound the chosen mixture of spices and wrap in muslin, leaving them to infuse during cooking. Some Indian cooks often add spices which they have "tempered"; that is to say, whole spices heated through to release their aromatic oils, then ground with a little vinegar and finally fried in oil for a few minutes. This paste, added with other ingredients, gives a rich dimension to an aubergine chutney or pickle, the vegetable itself being bland.

Chilli: whether you decide to put your foot on the accelerator or slam the brakes on is up to you. But a chutney without chilli isn't a chutney. You're not actually going to eat it off the spoon and it's designed to add relish to other foods, so it can take a fair bit. It's not fair to children though. My son, using a red marker pen, writes HOT on the label when he thinks I've gone too far.

Recipes: The recipes on the right give a range of some favourite chutneys which have stood the test of time. If experimenting, make small quantities to start with. Simply look to get a balance of sugar, vinegar, salt and spice which is to your taste. Given the ordinariness of many chutneys in the shops, it's very easy to put your own stamp on a chutney.

For example, add tasty titbits such as preserved ginger, dried cranberries, chopped dates, sliced preserved lemons, whole green chillies. You might even find a use for that nondescript plum jam you made last year; tip it in with the apples and onions and raisins, sugar and vinegar as the chutney mixture cooks. OK, so it will be a mongrel of a chutney but fine with your ploughman's. Though it's not to be confused with the pedigree of the species, Mrs B's authentic Indian Mango Chutney.

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