Friday, 3 October 2014

pakistani spiced apple chutney + o's boarding school tales

m's pakistani spiced apple chutney
before i met o, much of what i knew about boarding school was from books that i inherited from mama’s childhood collection. there was roald dahl’s ‘boy’ with its rambunctious descriptions of boarding school. it spoke of a world inhabited by strict headmasters, stern matrons and care packages from home brimming with nostalgia and longing. enid blyton’s ‘malory towers’ was a detailed sketch of a british all girl’s boarding school and was much more gleeful than coolidge’s american ‘what katy did next’. as much as i loved the books, they did not inspire a love for boarding school. i could not conceive of being away from home in an environment of abysmal school dinners and strict teachers. it is perhaps the reason why i never understood o’s love for his boarding school days until i met andrew maclehose, his headmaster.

o spent his early teens at chand bagh, a prestigious boarding school whose sprawling campus lies on the outskirts of lahore. it is the sister institution of the doon school in india, an independent boarding school inspired by the british public school system that has existed since the 1930s. chand bagh in pakistan drew its name from the estate on which doon school stands and literally translates to ‘moon garden’. o’s father and uncles were boarders and his attending chand bagh could be seen as tradition. but tradition would demand that he follow the footsteps to the same institutions – in his family’s case aitchison college. the latter has a historical footprint that extends further than that of doon and chand bagh school combined, as it was founded in the late 1800s. in fact o visited aitchison and turned it down as he felt it was elitist.

all this changed when he met andrew maclehose at the pearl continental hotel in pindi. the newly created chand bagh was recruiting its first cohort of students and the school’s new head master inspired my then teenage husband to join its ranks. there were timid boys from families who were eager for them to receive the best and all-rounded education; there were bright ones on scholarship and, then there were those who were mischievous and boisterous. o was from this last camp. they were the ones for whom the discipline and rigour of boarding was intended to transform them into charming and chivalrous young men. boarding did not contain o’s impish streak, nor did its rigours make him used to cold showers, cold rooms and bedtime discipline. but it did, in maclehose give him his most inspiring teacher, mentor and role model. a dedicated educationist, he gave o his love of public speaking that translated into a debating career for which he won many accolades. he also instilled in him a love of history, politics and economics providing an environment in which to cultivate those interests. the boys were also made to participate in a strenuous programme of sports that helped trim o’s waistline. 

i first met andrew maclehose in 2009. he is a tall man with an imposing figure and a gentle voice. my lasting memory of that afternoon lunch is how the young men that he had taught had a relationship with him that was a mix of a teacher and father figure. despite the passage of time, it is difficult for them to conceive of him outside his role of headmaster and it is only on this recent trip that o took to calling him by his first name. 

a casual afternoon spread
we have spent two weekends with andrew and his wife heather since that first meeting. they live in a beautiful (if rather cold) cottage in wales with a garden that slopes towards a bucolic landscape. our most recent visit was in mid-september. on the afternoon that we arrived, we ate a ploughman’s lunch. there were beets glistening with oil, tomatoes with vinaigrette and a cheese board with wedges of tintern, smoked applewood cheddar, dolce latte and a fruity wensleydale. there was also a jar of homemade apple chutney as a condiment to the cheese board, made with apples from the garden. 

we returned to london with a bagful of windfall apples. their fat and misshapen bodies gently bruised from where they had fallen. it seemed best to chutney them in a manner similar to heather’s. so i skinned, cored and roughly chopped their flesh, cooking them with pakistani spices that mama uses most often. a combination of vinegar and dark muscovado sugar helps to preserve, add sharpness and notes of treacle. 

chutney is more forgiving than jam in that it is easier to achieve and test for a set. but it takes longer and requires vigilance and plenty of stirring. when cooking, it will make the air thick with spice and vinegar, the kind that sharpens the breath as it clears the sinuses. i dry roast my spices to encourage toastier notes. like all chutneys it is best to rest the chutney for at least a week (if not more) before eating it. this allows the spices to relax, mellow and deepen their flavours. i have been making o buttery cheese toasties with the chutney and s’ jar found itself in the company of daal chawal; one of the simplest and most comforting pakistani suppers.

mature cheddar, brie and chutney
{m’s pakistani spice
d apple chutney}

one kg cooking apples* 
two hundred and fifty grams red onion*
four hundred and fifty ml cider vinegar
one teaspoon coriander seeds
one teaspoon white cumin seeds
one teaspoon black peppercorns
one fresh red chilli
thirty grams ginger
a bay leaf
three hundred grams dark muscovado sugar 
two hundred grams golden raisins
one teaspoon salt 

*note that the weight of the apples and onion is after peeling and chopping.

start by dry toasting the whole spices (coriander, cumin and black peppercorns) in a skillet or heavy  bottomed frying pan. if you have not done this before, i find this primer from epicurious to be helpful. you will have to move them around frequently to prevent them from burning. they are ready when they smell fragrant and toasted. rinse the raisins and pick out any stray stems. then squeeze them to remove any excess moisture. set them aside. 

place the toasted spices, fresh chilli and ginger in a food processor and grind to a rough paste. you can also do this by hand using a pestle and mortar.

peel, core and roughly chop the apples making sure to remove any bruised or spoilt bits. place these in a large heavy bottomed pan with plenty of space for the other ingredients. finely dice the onion and add it to the pot followed by the processed spice mixture, bay leaf and vinegar. bring the contents of the pan to a boil and then simmer for half an hour. the apple should have broken down somewhat and the onion should begin to look translucent.

now add the muscovado sugar, salt and raisins. stir to incorporate and then return the chutney to a boil to dissolve the sugar. once this is done lower the heat and let the chutney cook until it reduces and becomes jam like. to test readiness, make a channel with a wooden spoon. the imprint should close slowly and should not be filled with vinegar. jar whilst hot. 

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