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Chutney: Born in Virginia, inspired by Britain

By Robert DiGiacomo,

As a kid growing up in Northern Virginia, Oliver Turner could never get a classmate to swap for the lunches his British-born mother packed for him. No kid raised on peanut butter and jelly on Wonder bread would think about trading in the tried-and-true for cheddar on brown bread, especially when the cheese was slathered with something too exotic to be recognized.

“It blew the deal when they saw the huge chunks of chutney,” Turner says, ruefully.

Several decades later, chutney’s niche appeal doesn’t pose quite as much of a challenge for Turner and his parents, who are building a family business around the stuff in Washington, Va. Shoppers at Whole Foods, the biggest retailer that carries their Virginia Chutney Co. products, don’t tend to be the Wonder bread type, after all.

The company has made great strides in its seven years of operation. The business sold its first jar of chutney at the Fun Shop in Middleburg and initially focused on smaller gift stores.

In early 2007, it got its big break when the then-new Whole Foods in Alexandria began to stock the products. Virginia Chutney’s line of mango, green tomato and a half-dozen other varieties is now carried in 128 Whole Foods stores in the Mid-Atlantic and on the West Coast, as well as such specialty cheese shops as Cowgirl Creamery in the District and Murray’s in New York.

But with ketchup, mustard and salsa commanding most of the nation’s condiment attention, chutney can still be a hard sell. For starters, chutney aficionados don’t always agree about the definition: Is chutney a relish, a sauce or something else?

“I say it’s like a savory jam that’s always made with fruit and vinegar and onions,” says Clare Turner, Oliver’s mother. “But there are tons of Indian ones that aren’t made like that at all.”

Even at Whole Foods, shoppers didn’t always know about pairing chutney with cheese and mostly associated it with Indian curry. Consumers in the South, where chutneys are a staple, responded more favorably when Clare Turner served samples.

“I found that fascinating, as I got the idea of making chutney when I did my degree in anthropology and was studying food ways and the diverse food culture of the South,” she says.

I was among those who’d never paid much attention to chutney other than to reach for a dab of Major Grey’s, a sweet mango chutney, to tame the fire of Indian food. But in the United Kingdom, chutney is a sweet-and-savory standard that’s put out with cheese or a roast or almost any dish that might benefit from a little extra zing.

“I think the food in England used to be so awful, they put chutney on everything,” Clare says.

Actually, the Brits “discovered” chutney during the colonial period in India and brought the concept back home, where recipes incorporated local fruits and accommodated sweeter tastes, says her son. But the most famous Brit associated with chutney — Major Grey — wasn’t even a real person.

“Major Grey was an apocryphal character created to reflect the interplay between English and Indian food cultures,” Oliver says.

The chutney tradition crossed the pond to the Caribbean and the American South, again with a local twist. In the South, for example, instead of tamarind chutney with vindaloo curry, a cook might serve a peach chutney with ham biscuits.

“The ingredients reflect the region where it’s from. The use reflects the region,” Oliver says. “Southern ham and pork go well with a sweeter style. Indian chutneys are super-spicy.”

Virginia Chutney calls its products Southern-style, and its version of Major Grey’s is well suited for glazing salmon or shrimp. There’s also a kicky green tomato (pronounced to-MAH-to by the Turners) with a slight mustard-seed tang; a spicy plum that works well with cheddar or as a glaze for roast pork; and both sweet and hot peach versions, the latter getting its heat from habanero peppers.

In the Turners’ “test kitchen,” also the family kitchen in their sprawling log cabin home-office, there’s often a chutney on the stove and several more experiments in the fridge.

The company’s 120,000 jars a year are handled by a regional contract producer in Pennsylvania, but production is scheduled to shift this fall to a new commercial kitchen the Turners are developing near the office in Rappahannock County.

When it comes to matters of chutney, everyone in the family has strong ideas.

The elder Turners come by their chutney knowledge naturally. Clare, whose parents served in the British Colonial Service, grew up in Uganda and Kenya until she was 13 and therefore is well versed in the spicier, fresh Indian chutneys as well as the sweeter British ones.

Her husband, Nevill, who is from Kent, ate chutney all the time, and his aunt, Kathleen Turner, even wrote it about in a 1932 cooking pamphlet, “British Ingredients for British Cooks.” With a degree in biochemistry from Cambridge, Nevill tends to be more scientific in approach than his wife or son.

He met Clare in the 1970s in the Caribbean, where they both worked for Colin Tennant, the developer of the jet-setting island of Mustique. Later, they owned a restaurant in St. Lucia, where Oliver’s younger brother, Christopher, was born. (Oliver was born in Barbados.) They came to the States about 30 years ago, choosing Virginia for its schools and business climate.

Oliver, who studied English at William and Mary, describes himself as a “crashing bore” about chutney who has been known to correct the Wikipedia entry. But during my recent visit to their headquarters, which is down the street from the famed Inn at Little Washington, he doesn’t worry so much about sticking to the steps for making green tomato chutney.

Chutney is a fairly democratic condiment that, with enough practice, almost anyone can master, he assures me. The ripeness of the fruit, size of the pan and amount of heat used all factor into the final product and allow for variations on taste.

“It’s almost like a wine vintage,” Oliver says. “Each one is different.”

In separating their chutneys from that of rivals, the Turners emphasize what’s not in them — no commercial pectin or other coagulants — as much as what is. Local fruits, such as green tomatoes from the Farm at Sunnyside near them, are used when it’s possible to get a large enough quantity for production.

Back in the kitchen, we realize we forgot to add the Granny Smith apples to the bubbling cauldron of green tomatoes, onions, vinegar and spices. So Abigail DeLashmutt, who works in sales and marketing for the company and is Oliver’s girlfriend, chops them up and in they go.

Whether you’re casual or scientific in your approach to chutney, the cooking time is critical. “If you cook it 10 minutes too long, it sets up too hard,” Nevill explains. “Ten minutes too short, and it gets runny.”

After raisins are added and the chutney nears the finish, I learn how to judge whether it’s runny or ready by taking a wooden spoon and dragging it through the middle of the pot. If you see the bottom of the pot for a second or two, the chutney is done. “The ‘parting of the Red Sea’ is a sign you take it off the heat,” Oliver says.

The resulting chutney is nuanced and chunky, with sweet and sour tones, and just the right oomph from the mustard seed and crushed red pepper flakes. Soon, another chutney goes into the refrigerator, sure to be discussed by the family.

“We learn every day,” says Clare. “We never think we nailed it.”

Her husband adds: “You have to be careful what you wish for. We eat, sleep and breathe chutney.”

RECIPES:

Spicy Apricot Peach Chutney

Green Tomato Chutney

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