Rhubarb and I go way back. As a child I never used to love it, and since there was always rhubarb cake on the table during the summer months I had to learn to live with it. I think I only grew to appreciate the odd, tangy taste as I got older (as is the case with many things, including the usual suspects olives, liver and celeriac). To me, rhubarb is sour but Kim tells me my concept of sour differs greatly from what English people consider sour. In my world, gherkins, saurkraut and lemons count among the sourest things out there whereas Kim says they’re bitter. Interesting. I believe much research has been done in psychology and other fields to determine the relations between culture and perceptions of taste and flavours.
Back to rhubarb. Rhubarb takes over your garden if you’re not careful. Once you let rhubarb in you really have to play the bad cop. With its love of shade, hardiness and longevity and leaves well over 0,5m in diameter it can easily stage its own coup d’etat in your garden. Keep an eye on it however and it will give you much joy in the form of juicy, tangy stalks (do not eat the leaves, they contain poisonous oxalic acid). My mother has a gigantic, age-old rhubarb plant in the back of her garden, situated in the shade of our enormous cherry tree. She never waters it, yet it is still going strong. I doubt she ever thinks of it until it’s time to harvest. Here’s a picture taken on my recent visit.
Rhubarb usually features in my life in form of cake. My English friends tell me this is positively weird. Everybody knows rhubarb is meant to be eaten in a crumble. Well, you can keep your crumble, I tend to find it overpoweringly sour and the amounts of sugar needed to offset the tanginess do us no favours anyway. My mother’s standard rhubarb cake takes the form of a quite high, bland tasting base of leavened dough topped with a thin layer of sharp-tasting rhubarb resulting in a perfectly balanced marriage of flavours. My mother and grandmother use the same leavened cake base for a number of creations (bilberry and apricot topping spring to mind) and I am sure you will read about it here in the future now that summer is upon us. But I digress, back to chutney.
Making this chutney was all kinds of fun, mainly because of the homespun yet adventurous nature of this activity. This is largely due to the fact that you have no idea what the final product will taste like. Even when you have tasted it and it tastes good, it needs to rest for at least a month for all of its flavours to get friendly with one another and develop a more mature taste. My chutney still sits in the pantry unopened, waiting for that final revelation. Furthermore, knowing the amount of sugar that goes in I worried somewhat that the final product would be similar to something that should probably go in a Victoria sponge rather than a zingy chutney to be paired up with cheese and red meats. Worry not, it is undoubtedly sweet but does not lack that kick we crave in a chutney. I await the opening of my first jar with bated breath.
Rhubarb chutney (makes 6 small jars)
500g red onions, finely chopped
50g ginger, peeled and grated
300ml red wine vinegar
500g apples, peeled, de-seeded and cut into fine cubes
200g chopped pitted dates
100g dried cranberries
1 tbsp mustard seeds
1 tbsp curry spices mix
400g muscovado sugar (I only had 200g of muscovado so I substituted the rest for dark brown cane sugar. This is fine but might alter the colour of your chutney slightly)
2 tbsp salt
700g rhubarb, peeled and cut into 2cm pieces
Get yourself a big pot. I mean it. The chutney will reduce in amount as it simmers away, however there was a point when I had to get an extra pot and transfer half of my mixture there. I suppose you could do that too but someone as pedantic as me hated to mix the two batches at the end – I have an irrational feeling that even though I’ve split everything up in half I will have ended up with two completely different tasting chutneys. Anyone less anal retentive will probably happily do this.
Get started on the onions. Put them into your big pot along with the ginger and vinegar. Bring this to boil and simmer for about 10mins. Then add everything else except the rhubarb and allow to simmer uncovered for another 10-15 minutes. Add the rhubarb and, surprise, simmer for 15-20 minutes. And that is it my friends. Hopefully now you have a sticky, unctuous brown mixture (mine might be more brown than would be desirable due to the fact that I had to use brown cane sugar). Allow your chutney to rest for 15 minutes.
You should have some sterilised jars to hand. Now this is a point of contention – I am certainly not one to preach health and safety. Technically for properly sterilised jars you should put them through a hot dishwasher cycle or boiling water on the hob or the oven. I am less fussy and simply place my jars in a big bowl, pour a kettle full of boiling water over them and leave them bathing for a couple of minutes. My mother tells me this is fine – do consult your mother on this matter! I got my jars cheap from a local hardware store in Sharrow – complete with pretty polka dot lids. I did however use the ones I already had in the pantry, waiting for their moment to shine. I do recommend hanging onto nice jam jars with good, solid lids – you won’t ever have to buy jars if you do.
Now that the chutney has had its rest spoon it into your sterilised jars (you can always fit in more than you think!), close tightly and up-end them until they have cooled down. This will cause the pressure in the jar to suck out (or in?) the air in the jar, and the lid with it. Hopefully as a result the lid will pop when you first open your jar – just like the shop bought ones do. Only so so so much better. Store your chutney in a cool, dark place, it will need at least a month for the flavours to develop. I cannot wait to enjoy my chutney with a bruschetta and a slab of brie, or some extra mature cheddar, washing it down with some red wine like the cultured lady I am :).