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164. Pheasants and Apple Chutney

In 1970s, Britain, Food, Stories on November 18, 2012 at 10:39 am

A Brace of Pheasants (painting by Richard Ansdell, 1868)

Our closest roommate in the Tufnell Park flat that fall of 1973 was Linda, the American who, inevitably, had lived a block away from my parents back in Brookline (see Tell Me Another 3, The Horn Player in the Cupboard). Linda had an independent, entrepreneurial spirit and clear goals: to find ways to make money that didn’t cost money and to get Nigel, an aristocratic young Englishman she’d met at a party, to fall in love with her. One of the things I admired about Linda was that as soon as she had defined a goal, however unattainable it might seem to others, she set out systematically to achieve it. And so it was with these two goals, as you shall see.

Just before Andrew and I had moved in, some new English friends of Linda’s had invited her to spend a weekend in the country with them, sending her home with a bushel of apples and a brace of pheasants. Upon her return she hung the pheasants from a hook up in the attic, and although, thankfully, I never actually saw them suspended there, she gave us regular bulletins on their progress. Apparently pheasants are best dealt with in this way so that the meat starts to go off a bit—to get pleasantly high-tasting without going downright rotten. Connoisseurs describe meat in this desirable condition as “gamey.” We didn’t know; we had never eaten pheasant. In any case, we were both vegetarians at the time (though Andrew was the purist; I was one of those fair-weather vegetarians who would eat meat when it suited me).

While she was waiting for her pheasants to attain just the right degree of putridity—for they were a key component of her master plan—Linda turned to the apples. Here the project seemed to be a relatively straightforward one: to make apple chutney and sell it in jars to local health food shops, which were to be found in abundance in Alternative London of the early Seventies. Setting up shop in our small shared kitchen, she began peeling and cubing the apples with gusto (but scant attention to hygiene) on the cluttered kitchen table. After adding raisins, vinegar, and brown sugar she left the stuff to simmer for hours, using every pot in the house and filing our nostrils with the pungent acidity of vinegar and a slight smell of burnt sugar every so often, when Linda forgot to stir. Meanwhile, she scoured the neighborhood skips (dumpsters) for empty jamjars, which she brought home and washed in the kitchen sink. She spooned the chutney into the jars, screwed the lids on tight, and set about making labels: Linda’s Homemade Apple Chutney.

apple chutney in jamjars

Despite the nuisance of the kitchen takeover most of the rest of us were a little amused by Linda’s slapdash energy, but Andrew was appalled. When the jars started exploding on the shelves at one of the health-food shops, he was vindicated but Linda was unabashed. She simply brought them home, reheated the contents, transferred them into new jars, and returned them to the shop. Later, when Andrew went into canning for home use, as if to compensate for Linda’s travesty of hygiene, he religiously employed a scientific method that never lost a single jar to spoilage (see Tell Me Another 86, Bottled Sunshine).

By now, the kitchen floor was sufficiently sticky underfoot and Linda had determined that her pheasants were sufficiently gamey. Actually, she realized that she’d left them just a little too long, and this gave a little more urgency to the next stage of her master plan: hosting an elegant dinner party and inviting Nigel. Accordingly, invitations went out to a dozen dinner guests (in addition to us long-suffering housemates, for Linda was a generous soul), requesting the pleasure of their company at a pheasant dinner, and it was time to figure out the next step: how to prepare the pheasant. By the time Linda had plucked the birds and cut out the portions that were no longer fit for human consumption (I am grateful that my memory banks seem to have rendered those particular sights and smells permanently irretrievable), the only kind of dish she could conceivably make to feed the soon-to-be-arriving throng was pheasant stew, with salt, onions, root vegetables, and heavy lacings of herbs adding the necessary bulk and masking any excess gamey-ness.

Those of us who still wished Linda well by this time waited apprehensively as the time neared for the guests to arrive. She had asked people to dress for a formal dinner party, and after clearing and setting the kitchen table (the floor was past reclamation as I recall), she disappeared upstairs and eventually emerged, dressed to the nines and determined to win the heart (if not the stomach) of her intended.

Somehow we got through that evening. Again, thankfully, I remember it only vaguely. I can only think of the picture on the sleeve of Goat’s Head Soup, the Rolling Stones album that had come out earlier that year. I can see the formally-dressed dinner guests standing in line as if in a soup kitchen, while Linda, all elegance, served up the stew in large dollops. British politeness, and perhaps her own obtuseness, saved us all, since if the stew was well-nigh inedible, nobody would have dreamt of saying as much, and I think Linda had made a pretty decent apple pie with the remainder of the apples to round off the meal.

The amazing thing is, her plan worked perfectly! For whatever combination of reasons, she won the upper-class Nigel’s heart and, shortly thereafter, moved in with him. Andrew and I visited her in what seemed to us palatial premises in Leicester Square, a flat whose only feature I still remember was the gleaming black-and-white tiled bathroom, with a throne fit for a queen set on an elevated, similarly tiled platform.

We lost touch with Linda after that, but I hope she is happy and well. Whether or not she and Nigel lasted, I feel sure that her irrepressible spirit would have carried her forward to the successful execution of her next master plan.

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