Returning from holiday and heaving the suitcases through the back door, the tomato plants caught her eye. Bowed under the weight of fruit, coloured through the spectrum of darkest green to rosiest red, they had exceeded all expectations. With only a patio to call a garden, but a surfeit of containers, she’d dedicated the sunniest corner to an assortment of tomato varieties. Like the rats of Hamelin, there were great ones, small ones, lean ones and brawny ones. They’d been eating them all summer – sliced in salads, grilled with bacon, roasted with lamb. They’d been giving them away to friends and family all summer too. She noticed that her obliging neighbour from over the garden fence had kept the plants well watered whilst they’d been away, but hadn’t made much of a dent in the crop, in spite of being told to help herself.
The next morning, after a good night’s sleep back in her own bed and nursing a cup of tea that tasted exactly as it should, she surveyed the fruit. So late in the season, the green ones wouldn’t have much of a chance to ripen. The red ones were too numerous to eat raw before rotting; they went off a lot quicker than shop bought. A freezer already stocked with home-made passata meant that she had only a couple of options left.
Torn between ketchup and chutney, she chose chutney. Vague memories of her mother making a gallon of tomato ketchup some decades previously, coloured her decision. The resulting somewhat watery sauce had been ‘interesting’ in flavour but nothing like the stuff that, in those days, came in glass bottles that needed a good thump on the bottom to get it moving. Mum’s ketchup collection had hovered in the store cupboard for years, gradually making its way towards the dark at the back of the inaccessible top shelf, before mysteriously disappearing altogether at the turn of the century.
Telling herself she didn’t need to venture to the shops for ingredients, she retrieved some apples from the freebie fallers’ basket across the road and substituted dates for sultanas. Sugar, garlic and onions were always about. Mustard seed she had – because of the saag aloo that was a bit of a family favourite; cloves were waiting for bread sauce. Surprisingly, powdered ginger was in the cupboard too because… she couldn’t remember why. Ad lib-ing with one or two other ignored spices, she included a bag of chilli flakes too as an afterthought. Now, vinegar.. Recollecting seeing a big jar of it somewhere strange, she eventually located some malt pickling vinegar under the sink with the cleaning products. Raiding the glass recycling basket by the back door, she put a motley assortment of jars in the dishwasher. She was good to go!
The resulting concoction smelled quite nice. Her husband said so too, so it wasn’t her imagination. Although it had taken a lot longer to reduce than she’d thought it would, the consistency looked right as she ladled the brownish sludge into the jars, feeling very seasonal and a little bit domestic goddess-y. Rounding off the whole exercise with attractive labels that she’d designed and printed herself and colourful fabric lid covers, she arranged the chutneys on a shelf and planned to give some away as Christmas gifts.
A few weeks later, her husband was having some cheese and biscuits and expressing a wish to try her chutney. Choosing a rather attractive hexagonal jar from her hoard, she handed it to him with a smile on her face and a small glow of pride in her heart.
“Nnngghh.” A strangled noise escaped him as he chewed, his eyes bulging a little. Swallowing and taking a large gulp of beer to follow it down, he caught his breath and announced that it was ‘interesting’ (uh-oh) and possibly needed to ‘mature’ for a bit longer.
“Really?” She hadn’t actually tasted it herself, so she dropped a large blob on a cracker and took a bite. To say it was viciously acerbic with the heat of a thousand dragons, didn’t quite do it justice. She felt her gums shrivel; her tongue tried to crawl away. Valiantly, she swallowed, also washing it down with a swig or three of his beer.
“Yes, perhaps a bit longer.” She agreed in a small, slightly squeaky voice, abandoning ideas of gifting it. At least, not to anyone she liked.
Breaking out a jar of Branston, her husband sweetly shone a small ray of hope. “I read somewhere that the original Worcestershire sauce tasted so vile that they locked it in a cellar for a few years – and then discovered its aged deliciousness by accident.” He said, encouragingly.
But it was with a certain degree of sadness and a belated sympathy with her poor old Mum, that she relegated her chutneys to a little-used top shelf. A dark half-way house to a mysterious disappearance at some unknown future date probably, she thought, as she closed the cupboard door.
Never mind, her patio was going to be wall to wall strawberries next summer. Jam had only two ingredients. What could possibly go wrong?
© Lucia Foster-Found 2019 www.luciafosterfound.com