Welcome to the house that summer built, where we live in thinnest cotton by day and sleep on the covers by night. Where we are steeped in the bedlam of high summer, the wild insect zing, the fuzzy hum of the bee expeditions, the clatter of bird dispute, and the occasional squawking soliloquy of the chicken run. The Russian sage remains, months on end, a very popular nectar gathering point.Then there is the visual circus, staring with the heliotrope, even more deeply purple in reality than in the photo below.The blooming pomegranate, with a thousand creamy, orange-striated petals for every flower, continues the show from its peak in July on into September. The crape myrtle is in full splendor too, just now.As if all that sound and technicolor weren't enough, there are the scents the flowers and fruit give off. And brother is there ever fruit.Some of us take refuge in the rediscovery of books. Others start sharpening the knives to better keep up with the abundance. A particular post-lunch success was succulent, candy-sweet white peaches and golden raspberries (from a neighbor) topped with a fromage blanc. The mild, very soft fresh cheese was barely sweetened with a homemade fruit butter; hello, seasonal divinity in a dish. Of course, this is less a recipe than a meeting of like-minded fruits...Simple as simple can be, like the best summer dishes. A more drastic approach was called for in the matter of the plums. Bumper crop is the operative term here. Conservatively, I'd estimate the juicy total greengage plum haul at about 75 kilos (from half a dozen trees, which we studiously ignore the rest of the year). I've been inviting everyone and all their potential and actual brethren to come pick their own. In half an hour, I picked the lift-with-your-knees thirteen kilos pictured below. Thank the stars above for my plum pitter. Thus far, I've set aside plum eau de vie, whipped up a seductively intense plum sorbet (its fruitiness underlined with a delicate touch of housemade ginger syrup), canned tart 'n' sweet plum jam, jam and more jam, as well as a creamy English-style plum butter, plum syrup and lavish pineapple-plum chutney, made using dried chunks of pineapple. Jars and more jars, to be handed out at Christmas-time, to bring back the dream that was summer. And of course for after-dinner delectation there are the thrown-together plum cobblers, crisps and rustic open-face tarts (the last made in a New York second using store-bought puff pastry, sliced fruit, a few slivers of butter and a scant tablespoon of sugar blended with thickening arrowroot or cornstarch). All well and delicious, but. There were and are still a lot more plums to be picked, both greengages/Reine Claudes and fragrant yellow Mirabelles--and some unidentified sauvage ones. The handy thing about chutney is that in addition to being a toothsome match to pork, lamb, game or poultry, it also works well as a meat glaze, or mixed with olive oil for an exuberant marinade--or even blended with mayonnaise to add zip to a cold cut sandwich. In short, it has a wider range of possibilities than jam, as delicious as plum preserves are.Rummaging in the cabinets of the (too-warm) kitchen while idly fantasizing about cooler climes, after breaking into a sweat (from the rummaging, you see) I came up with this recipe. There is no point in feigning modesty when it comes to good food; this chutney is, er, plum delicious. If you want something with bright colors and fresh flavors, look elsewhere for a relish recipe. This puppy cooks down to a unremarkable looking brown slurry flecked with mustard seed and translucent flakes of garlic (the photo above was taken just half an hour into the cooking). All the beauty is in the tasting: deeply flavorful and complex, tangy and sweet, with a touch of the mellowing dark maple under the heady shower of spices. (Woo-hoo, star anise!) And every now and then, the titillation of still slightly tart dried cranberries...This stuff makes meat sing. With a Quebecois accent.
O Canada! Chutney épicé (O Canada! Spicy Chutney)
Makes 6 medium-sized jars.
2 kgs fresh plums, pitted
4 onions, chopped
2 cups dried cranberries
8 large garlic cloves, peeled, any bitter green shoot removed, very thinly sliced
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1 ½ cup sugar
½ cup maple syrup (an intense #3 Dark or Grade B, if possible)
2 tablespoons powdered ginger
4 teaspoons whole mustard seed
3 teaspoons hot paprika
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground star anise (optional but nice)
½ teaspoon ground cardamom (optional but nice)
½ teaspoon ground galangal (optional but nice)
Other spice possibilities: a half teaspoon of ground cloves, ground allspice, ground mace...
Combine all the ingredients in the largest pot you can find. Bring the ingredients to a boil, then cook over medium heat for between an hour and an hour and a half, stirring periodically. If you don’t stir it every now and then, you may have some burnt bits on the bottom. Not that I’m speaking from experience or anything.* As the very liquid mixture heats up and begins to boil down, please be ready for hot splatters. The chutney will need to thicken considerably, and by the end, it should have a syrupy, nearly jammy look to it: the spoon should leave a slight trail behind it. I keep a screen cover on top, which I hold before me as a shield while stirring. About half an hour before the chutney is finished cooking, sterilize seven jars (always good to have an extra on hand, just in case) by boiling the fully immersed glass containers and their lids in another large pot of water for at least 20 minutes. Once the sauce looks ready, remove the jars and lids from the boiling water and place them upside-down on a clean dish towel. Fill the still-warm jars, one by one, with the hot chutney, sealing with the sterilized lid, and turning over gently. Allow the jars to cool upside-down overnight. The flavors will deepen and improve with time. Once opened, the chutney will need to be refrigerated,though it can keep for weeks.
* Alright, so I am speaking from experience. I went for a lightning shower, and found myself slowed down by the tactile pleasure of having actually cooled off. My advice? Ahem. Stay in relative proximity to the stovetop. If you do have some scorching going on due to unavoidable distraction, sigh deeply, lift the pot off the burner, pour the yet-to-be chutney into a mixing bowl, and scrub the heck out of the poor pot, before continuing with the cooking. You'll have to clean that pot anyway, and doing it sooner keeps the carbon from tainting your beautiful-on-the-inside sauce.