I’m back from the country with a jar of marigold seeds, picked from somebody’s hedge and a large marrow to make my grandmother’s marrow chutney. My head is full of my Welsh grandmother this time of the year, although she is long gone. I remember her scuttling like a beetle between her kitchen, where we all sat around the only source of heat in the house, and the back scullery, where she used to concoct all sorts of culinary magic on a rusty old gas stove, with her chopping block balanced over the bath. As soon as the jars were filled, they would be placed with great pride on the shelves in the pantry and there they would sit diminishing with the days of winter, the turmeric-tinted chutneys, the pickled onions, the fruit jams and the preserved tomatoes, glinting like the jewels of Jaipur, although that was an image she would probably not have understood.
My grandmother always wore black, with a silver brooch at her neck with the Om sign sculped on to it.This fact came to light only when I inherited it. My grandmother was not into alternative religion, so I don’t know the brooch’s provenance. Nor was she more than self- educated. As the eldest of eleven children, she was out of school, helping, more than she was in. That didn’t stop her learning to read and write however and she kept a fine recipe book in her beautiful hand. She also played the piano well enough to later accompany the local male voice choir, where she had the pick of the lot as a husband. Clever.
Sometimes she added a white lace collar to her dress. Always in the daytime she wore a pinnie. She worked hard all day long to keep her family fed, warm and nurtured. Just inside the door that linked the kitchen with the scullery was the teatray, sitting ever ready with its teapot, tea caddie and fine china cups and saucers. Although my grandmother was by our standards, poor, she was by her own, rich and kept them up.
When she wasn’t in the kitchen being creative (never scivvying) she was out the back, tending her roses,carnations and shallots with a mother’s care. My grandfather did the potatoes and the cabbages and potted in his shed, from time to time coming back to check that his world was still moving steadily around his sun.
I learned a lot from watching my grandmother; more than I’ve ever learned from the books that I so intensely scour for answers. I learned the importance of keeping one’s space, however modest,’ tidy’. I learned the importance of hard work and keeping on top of the day. I learned the importance of the teatray and the sacred nature of hospitality.
But most of all I learned thrift and the nature of sharing. For as many of those pots and jars went to passing neighbours as went into our bellies. My grandmother saved everything from elastic bands to paper bags and was a great natural recycler. Nothing went to waste. She would have been appalled by the supermarket culture and would no doubt have quietly wondered where the point of living might be with so much so easily on tap. But she would have said nothing out loud and what she saw and thought would never have affected what she did.
Which was to live her simple life with great dignity and leave a trail of effects in her quiet wake. We grandchildren still make her yeast cake and her Welsh cakes, as do her great grandchildren. I guess that is a kind of immortality. And now with the aid of a technology she knew nothing about, I’m giving the world her recipe for marrow chutney. She would have loved the idea of that. For love was the root and stem of my grandmother’s life.
Ma’s Marrow Chutney
2lbs chopped marrow soaked in salt overnight, 2 lbs cooking apples, 1 lb dark brown sugar, 2 teaspoons of turmeric, 1 lb onions, 1 pint spiced vinegar, salt to taste.
Drain marrow of water and cook with other ingredients (except turmeric which should be mixed with vinegar and added midway through cooking). Simmer mixture a long time until a chutney consistency is achieved. Put in warm jars. Cover. Place on pantry shelf!