My maternal grandparents lived in a white farm house with a red roof and a veranda that wrapped around two sides. I have a lot of affectionate for the trees and plants that grew directly around that house. These were the plants that my grandma and great grandma has chosen to encircle the house….a little circle of carefully composed domestic magic. Here is a photo of my grandmother (on the left) with my cousin Leigh Ann, my Aunty Mona and my great grandmother Cumberworth.
My Grandmother bought the farm house while Grandpa was away at World War Two and her mother helped her with all of the plantings around the house. They planted a willow tree between the house and the deep ditch that overflowed with water every spring. The farm was on a flood plain and willows drink a lot of water. The tree had grown to a huge size by the time I showed up, its protective power and size growing as drank season after season of encroaching water. No one lives in the house now and it is quietly moldering, but the willow tree is still drinking and protecting. This is what the house and the willow tree look like these days.
Also near the ditch, there were twin holly bushes that had grown together to form what appeared to be absolutely the biggest holly bush any one has ever seen. There were snow ball and lilac by the driveway. If you were a child, you could climb inside the bushes to hide in a hidden flowery chamber where they met. There was a gooseberry bush that produced little berries that looked like translucent, pale green cat eyeballs. They were sour tasting, but grandma said that her mother used to make jam from them. I have since learned that gooseberries were big with the Victorian set and my great grandma Cumberworth was definitely of that era. The sour gooseberries shared a spot with a glorious sweet smelling (and tasting) honeysuckle vine. In the back, where the house met the large crop field, there was a healthy patch of rhubarb growing under a leaking garden faucet.
My grandmother had multiple sclerosis and was in a wheelchair by the time I knew her. She spent most of her time in a comfy arm-chair in the kitchen so she could visit with Grandpa while he cooked. Grandpa was an amazing cook, but grandma had a special diet, since she could not exercise. It must have been frustrating for her. She had been an active farm woman, lithe and strong and she had married a man who was positively renown for his cooking and baking skills…but she had to sit in her chair eating cottage cheese. I do not recall her complaining about it, but I do remember her asking me to go cut her a piece of rhubarb and bring her a little dish of sugar. We would dip ends of our rhubarb in the dish of sugar from the tea set and chew on them with conspiratorial glee.
The same mischievous look would come over her when we when grandpa would stop to gas up the Mercury during a drive. She would slip me a few coins so I could buy myself bag of salt and vinegar chips. She always specified…salt and vinegar chips. When I returned to the car grandma would eat half of “my” bag of chips while grandpa finished paying for the gas. I doubt somehow that grandpa would have denied grandma her sour treats, but I loved she asked me to get them for her and that we both loved them so much. In addition to training me to love sourness my grandma taught me to love bittersweetness by giving me last sip of her black drink tea (brewed strong enough that the tannin will strip the enamel off your teeth) with lots of milk and sugar. I also still chew chiclet gum in her honour.
I have been eating a lot of rhubarb because it is in season right now. I made a rhubarb custard that was a little weird, I made little molded rhubarb and muscat wine gelatins, which at the end of the day were just about the fanciest jello shots you ever did slurp. I made some killer stewed rhubarb and strawberries with dumplings (click here for that recipe). This Chutney is very, very, good. I have been using it to make pork chops in boozy jam sauce. I have also just been eating it by the spoonful. Chutney is very forgiving so feel free to omit or add stuff. I should say that, despite the name of this post, this chutney is not especially sour, but if you want it to be sour just decrease the sugar.
- 4 stalks sliced rhubarb (about 1 pound)
- 1 cup minced red onion (1 med onion)
- 1 cup raisins
- 4 oz dried santa rosa plums chopped
- 2 cups brown sugar (muscavado sugar if you can get it)
- 1 1/4 cups raspberry wine vinegar (apple cider or white wine vinegar would work too)
- 2 teaspoons sea salt
- 1 teaspoons cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon dry ginger
- 2 teaspoons freshly grated ginger
- 1 star anise
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/2 teaspoon mustard seed
- 1 dry arbol chili
- Pile everything into a nonreactive pot and let it simmer down until it is thick.
- Put it in a glass jar in your fridge and wait two weeks to eat it. As delicious as it will be right off the stove, it will be better after it blends for a couple of weeks.
MORE RHUBARB! MORE CHUTNEY! MORE FAMILY STORIES!