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Searching for meaning in a bottle of chutney

These days, it takes me a while to get around to reading the South African Sunday papers. So it was only today that I spotted this article on people going through the emigration application process. One anecdote stood out, an email from someone’s sister in Toronto begging for a few essentials:

Please, I beg of you,” the mail read. “We need the following items sent as quickly as possible: five bottles of Mrs Ball’s Chutney, three blocks of Sunlight soap, two tracksuits from the Pick n Pay in Norwood, and however many packets of ostrich biltong you can find.”

Ah, Mrs Ball’s Chutney. I always wondered about the chutney, why it was that so many South African expats held it up as the embodiment of all they loved and missed about their motherland. Truly, here was a brand that, even more than Castle Lager, was somehow able to express that strange notion we call national identity. Once, on a plane back from Hoedspruit, I spotted an ex-South African who’d just visited a game lodge nursing a huge bucket of the stuff on her lap. It seemed ridiculous to me. Two and a half kilos of the stuff? Whatever for?

I think I might understand the Mrs Ball’s thing now. The chutney I’ve tried in Australia, you see, is ghastly stuff, utterly ghastly. Too sweet, lacking in flavour. Mrs Ball’s really is very good. You don’t realise that until you’ve tried something else.

So far, I’ve been able to get my hands on Ouma rusks (the local biscuits are useless for dunking) and Boudoir biscuits. Sadly, the rusks failed to survive the journey from South Africa intact, which means that dunking them in my vanilla flavoured Fair Trade rooibos tea risks third degree burns to the tips of my fingers.

(I grew up at a time when Annique Theron was spreading her rooibos for babies gospel, and ordinary black tea tastes revolting to me.)

So yes, next time I’m in South Africa, I will be investing in a jar. Or two. Not so much out of a misplaced quest for meaning, but because Mrs Balls really is the best chutney I’ve ever had. And while I may have moved to Australia, my tastebuds haven’t quite caught up.


  • During the day Sarah Britten is a communication strategist; by night she writes books and blog entries. And sometimes paints. With lipstick. It helps to have insomnia.