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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.


  1. Bernard Bernard 5 July 2008

    Sarah if you go to an expatriate South African shop in Sydney you will not only find Mrs Ball”s chutney and also Ouma’s rusks,rooibos, koeksusters, Tennis biscuits and Redro vissmeer.Do a “Google” and you will find a winkel pretty close.
    Having left Cape Town in 1964 for Oz such items were unthinkable to get here so when the PFP crowd began arriving here in the ’80’s and ’90’s me have a few South African shops here in Perth. Nandos are well established here.In last few years you may find a Sotho person to practise your language skills with. A church here in Perth’s CBD has a regular Afrikaans service. So any emigrants desiring to try the world beyond as long as you don’t land in Woop Woop some fellow country person will satisfy you appetite.But no “When we were in ……..” (supply your own place name in S.A.)

  2. JLA JLA 6 July 2008

    You will find your taste buds changing the more time your spend here… (and I say this as somenone who still loves zoo biscuits)

  3. Sarah Britten Sarah Britten Post author | 7 July 2008

    Zoo Biscuits! Nooooo. Now I am going to spend the entire week fantasising about them. I’ve noticed that the Cadbury’s chocolate here tastes different from its SA equivalent. It’s somehow sweeter and not as creamy.

  4. Skipper Skipper 7 July 2008

    You are so right, it is the defining Sefrican product – aways have a bottle at home and I’ve been here for 10 years. Do you live in Manly? The ‘old’ Coles near the wharf usually has Mrs Balls in stock. Otherwise the Stanley Street butcher in St Ives carries just about everything you might be missing.

  5. Robert Robert 7 July 2008

    We buy our Mrs Balls from the local Coles.

  6. Jim Jim 7 July 2008

    Australia’s got TimTams in all sorts of different flavours. Try sucking ya coffee up into one of them fellas !

  7. Craig Craig 7 July 2008

    TimTams are the devils confectionary.

  8. Francoise Francoise 7 July 2008

    Sarah, you’ll find that chocolate is different in every country because each country’s laws stipulate a different chocolate content. Now, if you had moved to Switzerland … ahh, but let’s not start another Lindt debate!

  9. Sarah Britten Sarah Britten Post author | 9 July 2008

    Tim Tams melt in coffee. I’m trying biscotti, which is really a moffie rusk. (Is one allowed to use words like “moffie” here?)

  10. Recruitment Girl Recruitment Girl 9 July 2008

    I have to agree TimTams are the devils device!!!!!

  11. Ladyfingers Ladyfingers 10 July 2008

    Why bother with Cadbury’s (which was also vile in SA) when you could be having Whittakers?

  12. Henry Joubert Henry Joubert 12 July 2008

    I suppose other national and ethnic groups do exactly the same here in OZ , seeking out their own regional foods, but what I find rather strange is the totally obsessive need South African have for Rooibos, Ouman meelbol Mrs Ball biltong and whatever. Even Franklin’s down the road supply almost all of this stuff
    It reflecks the closeness of mind of Many South African migrants. For goodness sake try some other lovely and totally tasty ethnic foods from Europe and Asia

  13. Bernard Bernard 12 July 2008

    Henry Joubert, when your taste buds. have been whetted by the taste of freshly grilled or smoked snoek from an early age on then any salmon of however high the quality is rather insipid.The same could be said of Maltabella, curried fish,a Bo-Kaap bredie or a well grilled boerewors. Here in Perth I have a French lady friend and she swears that not even in France is there a product in its efficacy as good as Germolene. But of course other ethnic peoples could well say the same thing about their own country’s products.

  14. J-H J-H 13 July 2008

    They have all this stuff and even ProNutro on occasion in the Franklins at Macquarie shopping centre.

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