Fig chutney with cheese, crackers, and cashews.
Did you like your presents? Although I was hoping for cashmere socks, the funniest, etsy-est thing I got this year was a little poster from my sister, printed in block type, that read, “Today I will be happier than a bird with a French fry.” Words to live by, my friends!
And what else do you have, in the holiday aftermath? The days after Christmas are often the best part, when the stress-inducing members of the family have gone up to the Wharf or down to Disneyland, and you’re left with the fun sibs, the leftover booze, and a fridge full of leftover cold turkey and ham.
What’s better than a stiff drink and a ham-and-turkey sandwich with people you never have to impress? I’ll tell you: a ham-and-turkey sandwich dolloped with chutney, that’s what. And not just any common-or-garden chutney, no sirree Bob, but McQuade’s Celtic Chutney, made by red-headed Scotswoman Alison McQuade in small, aromatic batches, just like you would at home, if you were lucky enough to come from chutney-making people.
Hailing from Glasgow, McQuade comes by the Celtic appellation honestly, but her chutneys have a distinct California twist, thanks to the spark of heat and spice that zaps each one. Habanero and apple, fig and ginger (made with dried figs), and spiced apple are her mainstays, with other varieties rotated in depending on what’s in season.
Walking through the darkened downtown San Francisco restaurant where McQuade rents kitchen space in the off hours, I could smell the sharp, sweet zip of spice and vinegar the moment I stepped in from the street. Back in the small, fluorescent-lit kitchen, McQuade and an assistant are stirring two pots on the stove, each half-full chopped figs, cider vinegar, brown sugar, raisins, apples, lemon zest and a plum pudding’s worth of spices—nutmeg, ginger, allspice, cloves, cinnamon—all cooking down to a rich and fragrant gloss.
On the counter are boxes of fresh Fuyu persimmons, a backyard gift from the owners of the Hidden Vine wine bar nearby, a favorite hangout of McQuade’s. They’ll go into a new winter favorite, persimmon-habanero chutney. At the cozy Farm:Table cafe just a few blocks away (where McQuade often starts her day), jars of ruby cranberry-mandarin Christmas chutney are stacked up by the cash register. For McQuade, the chutney business is as much about building relationships and forging community as it is about filling jars.
Much of McQuade’s ingredients are sourced locally, from farms like Torey’s Farms, which she loves for their top-quality stone fruit and citrus. Cooking in small quantities (each batch usually fills about 30 7-oz jars) allows for a lot of flexibility. If something good turns up—fresh spring rhubarb, those backyard persimmons, a great deal on bananas or pineapple—she can adjust (or invent) a recipe on the spot, tossing the new variety into her ever-evolving product line.
Like many small-scale food artisans, McQuade had a long professional career first, working for the British Consulate and at law firms in both New York and Los Angeles. Missing the chutneys her grandmother had made while she was growing up in Scotland, she set to making a few jars for family and friends, bringing them to parties and giving it as gifts. Her hairdresser happened to try some, and a few days later called her from the salon. Get down here now with your chutney, she demanded. There’s someone here who needs to try it. McQuade, mystified but intrigued, grabbed a few jars and headed over. The woman in question took a taste and asked for 60 cases on the spot.
She turned out to be Peggy Smith, one of the founders of Cowgirl Creamery, whose cheese shops have remained one of McQuade’s best customers. That was 5 years ago, and now McQuade’s chutneys are available in shops throughout the Bay Area, including Bi-Rite, Falletti’s, Tomales Bay Foods, Whole Foods, Cheese Plus, and more. Restaurant and bars like Range, Hidden Vine, and the St. Francis Hotel’s Clock Bar have found uses for her sweet-spicy-tangy spreads, adding it to cheese plates, even putting it into cocktails themselves.
Lately, she’s been exploring more savory ways of using her chutneys, like shrimp stir-fry made with habanero chutney, or pork roast glazed with fig. Scrambled eggs, cheddar cheese, blue cheese, just about any kind of cold meat or sandwich: they’re all the better for a smear of chutney to keep out the cold. Even peanut butter’s better for a chutney hookup: the late (and much-loved) novelist and food writer Laurie Colwin often waxed rhapsodic about chutney, fondly recalling a tiny, perfect peanut butter-and-chutney sandwich she’d been served once at a cocktail party.
For next year, McQuade is working on a line of savory shortbreads flavored with fresh herbs like thyme and rosemary. Will they go with chutney? Did you even have to ask?