Deep in a quaint hamlet in the region of Dordogne, centered on the Dordogne River, an English woman named Kathy sits at her desk in a loft above the kitchen of her 1740s French farmhouse. Her Internet travels take her to places like Bayou Country in south Louisiana, and eventually to this blog via my recipe for fig preserves.
Kathy’s farmhouse sits in a township with about ten other homes totalling about 156 people. With sloping hills, stone farmhouse, and a lovely fig tree, the scene is quite a romantic one.
While waiting for the huge figs on her tree to ripen, Kathy offers us a traditional English recipe for Fig Chutney with suggestions for pairing this easy-to-make accompaniment with cold meats, cheese, and a good, fresh bread.
She explains, “In England we would call this a ploughman’s lunch, and the cheese would be Cheddar or one of the other regional English cheeses. Chutney is a great way to use up figs when you’ve made all the jam and preserves you think you can use. Chutney comes originally from India, and is a traditional condiment with a curry. It arrived in Britain in the 19th century with the Empire and is now a staple of English cooking, being used as an accompaniment to cold meat or cheese of any sort. You can also use it to give a shot of flavour to things like baked beans or soups. I think it’s quite close to what you call fig relish.”
In her email, along with the recipe, Kathy shares a rich history of her region.
“The traditional French name for the region is the Périgord, because the capital is the city of Périgueux. It’s an amazing part of the world where the bones of Cro-Magnon man were discovered in 1868. We now know that prehistoric man lived in this area from at least 40,000 years ago and left beautiful paintings in the caves that were eroded out of the cliffs above the Vézère Valley. Lascaux is the best-known, but there are over a hundred painted caves in that Valley. Then the Romans were here, and many places have Roman history attached to them, like Bergerac which was a Roman port on the river. Then there was the Medieval period, when a lot of the small villages were founded, with their stone buildings and narrow lanes; and the Hundred Years War between England and France (1337-1453), when this area was fought over hard, and both sides built astonishingly strong castles on both sides of the Dordogne; and then came the French Revolution and the French Empire in the first half of the 19th century, with the elegant houses and wrought iron balcony railings. It’s all here, and there are more beautiful and interesting things here than we will be able to see in a lifetime.”
Kathy insisted she didn’t want any credit for this recipe noting that these recipes are as abundant and varied in England as gumbo recipes in south Louisiana. She also shared that this chutney recipe can be infinitely varied by “adding (or not) onions, garlic, apple, raisins, dried apricots etc.; by changing the spices – cinnamon, mustard, coriander, cloves, pepper (black, red, Szechuan, etc.), turmeric, allspice, ginger (fresh is best but powdered works too); by using different kinds of sugar (white, brown, Muscovado…), or vinegar (cider, malt, white wine, red wine etc.). In other words, you can make it however you like with whatever you’ve got, so if you don’t have something the recipe calls for, just substitute something else that sounds attractive or that you have.”
With advice like this from a British native, how can we south Louisianians (and the rest of you) go wrong? I just want to offer a huge thank you to Kathy for sharing her chutney ideas, the interesting history of her farmhouse and her community. I’m not sure that I will get enough figs to even try one small batch of chutney this year, but I want some of you to give this a try. And as you spread the chutney on your fresh-baked bread and munch on a chunk of cheese, imagine that you are in sitting in her courtyard in the southwest of France. Then, come back here and leave her a big thank you and your responses in the comment section below!
A big bayou thank you, Kathy! I’m so glad the Internet led you to the fig preserve recipe!
- 1 kg figs 2.2 lbs, any type
- 250 g brown sugar 1 cup
- 300 ml . vinegar 1-1/3 cup, either cider or malt or a mixture of the two
- 250 g onions 9 oz, chopped
- 250 g raisins 9 oz by weight, or dates, prunes or other fruit
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon allspice
- ½ teaspoon cracked black peppercorns
- 3 cloves garlic finely chopped
- 1-1/2 inch piece fresh ginger root grated
- 1 teaspoon coriander seeds crushed in a mortar
Chop the figs roughly. Place in a large pan (stainless steel or enamel) together with the vinegar, onions, raisins, salt, allspice, cracked peppercorns, garlic, ginger and coriander. Bring up to the boil and simmer until onions and fruit are soft. (about half an hour)
Stir in sugar, bring back to the boil then reduce heat and simmer gently until thick enough to see the bottom of the pan briefly when a wooden spoon is pulled through it. This can take anywhere from 10-15 minutes to an hour, depending on the fruit. (It will not gel like jam, but it will thicken through evaporation.) When cooked, put into warm, sterilized jars and seal. (Makes about 3 jars.) Store in a dark, cool place for at least 6 weeks before eating.