All the Raj
All the Raj - An article by Rose Prince for The Telegraph Magazine
A childhood in India and a book of family recipes lie behind Christopher Smith’s homemade range of chutneys.
He spent his 13th birthday on a ship, the SS Orcades, which docked at Tilbury, Essex, on 17/12/1965, having sailed from India on 27/11/1965. "My mum gave me a pair of long johns," Smith remembers. It was his first experience of England. "As we came up the Thames, I saw heavy frost on the ground. It looked like snow."
Somewhere in the ship’s hold, buried deep in the family’s luggage, was a notebook filled with recipes belonging to Dolly, Christopher’s mother. The gold words on it's cloth cover read: Indu Indexed Diary, Compliments of the India United Mills.
Inside the feint lined pages are a record of the family’s Anglo-Indian meals, hand written in pen and ink. Next to the recipes for rock cakes, lemon curd and cheese straws is a recipe for mysoor pak, a crumbly sweet made with sugar, ghee and nutmeg. After the roly-poly, roast beef and cheese soufflé is a recipe for ‘stick curry’. "That was a family favourite," Smith says. "Like a curry with kebabs in it; meat alternating with ginger and onion on the skewers."
Mulligatawny soup, ginger pop and instructions for ‘Mrs Reddy’s vegetable curry’ hint more clearly at the Smiths’ former life among India’s post-war Anglo-Indian community; a family who, like the characters in a Paul Scott novel, ‘stayed on’ after independence. "Mrs. Reddy was the mother of one of the boys in the boarding school where my dad was a teacher," Smith says. His paternal grandfather, father and mother were born in India, but in 1965 his father took the decision to leave, with his wife and three sons and emigrate to the UK.
Even before putting a foot on the steps of the Smith family home in Ealing, you can smell spices in the street outside. When Christopher Smith opens the front door, the aroma becomes stronger still. On the gas cooker is a huge pan, three-quarters full of Brinjal (aubergine) Pickle. Smith has been making it all morning. In 2004 Smith launched a range of Indian condiments named after his parents, St John and Dolly Smith’s pickles, using recipes from Dolly’s book.
I had contacted Smith, intrigued, having discovered his Brinjal Pickle in Trinity Stores, a south London deli. Inside the jar was a rich, non-oily mix of spices, hand cut aubergines, and no skimping on the chilli. I had also found other wonderful sauces. A chilli sauce that was fiery, but which retained the lovely fruity flavour of scotch bonnet chillies; a piquant sweet pickle made from chopped lime zest, and a hot apple chutney.
The colours of each sauce are startling, the textures perfect. Smith’s pickles outclass the competition.
"My pickle business arose from an odd coincidence," Smith says. His mother had died in 1993, and then his father in 1997 and Smith continued to live in the family house, surrounded by their possessions. In 1999, having given up running a photography shop in Ealing, he was visiting a friend in a kitchen shop in Southall. "A woman came in, asking for a 'chattie' for making appam," Smith says, explaining that appam are breakfast pancakes and chatties the clay pot you make them in. ‘I called out, “I know about appam, I was born in Bangalore,” and the woman said, “So was I.”
When I told her my name, she said, "You’re not Dolly Smith’s son, are you?" It turned out she was the daughter-in-law of my mother’s best friend, and she then said, "Your mother made wonderful pickles, do you make them?"
Smith remembered the pickles that his parents made. After their return to England his parents would make a few jars and distribute them at annual school reunions. Smith went home and dug out the cloth-covered book. "I had promised her I would have a go at making them, so I did," Smith says. Another friend of his parents requested some the pickles, and reported they were just as good as Dolly’s originals. Once word got around, orders came in. Two years later Smith started the business properly. He put the name of his parents on the jars, on impulse, with black and white photos of their smiling faces. "It was my tribute to the parents I love and to whom I owe so much."
‘All kids should have a childhood like mine,’ Smith continues. St John (pronounced ‘Sinjan’) Smith taught at a boarding school in the Nilgiri Hills in Tamil Nadu. Smith recalls one tale of adventure when not in classes. ‘The railway station near the school had horse drawn carts and you could rent one of the ponies for a few pence a day. We rode them through the hills, playing cowboys and Indians,’ he says with an ironic grin. ‘Sometimes we would see people sitting on the side of the road outside their houses, selling sweets. When we told them we had no money, they gave them to us.’
Along with trapping quails, digging caves and climbing trees, there was mischief. He tells of how one of his brothers with some friends, was caught stealing fruit from a man’s garden, and was held prisoner in the man's shed. "The man was sitting outside, with a gun. My father had to come and negotiate his release. The next day the man sent a large amount of fruit to the school with instructions that they should be distributed.....to the girls. That’s how it was – no malice."
At home his mother had help in the kitchen and rarely cooked. "When we were in India I could count the times I saw either of my parents cooking," he says. "I was weaned on lentils and rice, and we mostly ate curries. I have loved chillies ever since I ate my first," he adds. Brought up in a poor country, Smith was taught never to waste. "When we ate lunch, I would ask other boys if I could eat the fatty meat if they didn't want it. I also love marrow bones, and will still crunch on a chicken bone."
When the family returned to Britain St. John sold everything. "He arrived here with £300, with a wife and three teenage sons to support. He went to the local education authority asking for work, but they would not recognise his degrees from Indian universities and would only employ him to teach junior immigrant children."
On the day of my visit Smith had been up before dawn, buying special aubergines for the brinjal pickle from the Western International Market near Southall. "I buy Scotch Bonnet chillies from an east London supplier who has a farm in the Dominican Republic. He chooses the reddest ones for me; they make the sauce look good."
We decide it is time for lunch, and Smith chooses a favourite Ruislip curry house, the Rajdoot. Smith loves it here, and brings his own pickles to complement the food. "The chef, Zak Rahman, never uses ready-made spice mixes or curry pastes, and makes his own chicken stock," he says approvingly, as we plough through a fragrant chicken chilli masala and a side dish of sautéed okra, firing it up nicely with a little of Dolly and St John’s chilli pickle, flavoured with tamarind, ginger, garlic and curry leaves. We dip poppadoms into the juicy lime pickle and mop up a spiced dal with hot flatbreads. Smith could be back in the country of his birth. He has not been there since 1998. "I tried to find the house in Bangalore where I was brought up, but it had gone," he says wistfully. Part of his upbringing is not lost, however. When Dolly Smith packed her cloth-bound notebook in 1965, she was at least taking memories of her kitchen to her new home.