Pass the chutney, please – Mrs Ball’s, of course
CHUTNEY is a pungent condiment that originated in India. The name is derived from the Hindi word “chatni”, which means “made from fruit and spices”. The extraordinary South African success story of Mrs H S Ball’s Chutney, hailed as “the best-tasting chutney in the world”, started in 1852 when Henry James Adkins from the Eastern Cape married Sarah, a Canadian immigrant. While it is rumoured that she was en route to Australia, but dramatically survived a shipwreck off East London, this is sadly (from the point of view of this story), not true. She disembarked routinely and they settled in Port Jackson, near King William’s Town, where they started a general dealership selling everything from horseshoes to sweets.
In the 1870s, Sarah began to make chutney on a small scale, based on her mother’s original recipe from Canada, but she was not a great brand builder as she called it “Mrs Henry Adkins Senior, Colonial Chutney Manufacturer, Fort Jackson, Cape Colony Chutney”. The Adkins had seven sons and four daughters, one of whom was Amelia Alice Elizabeth Adkins. At the Cape Town Science Centre innovation is something to be celebrated. Looking at the world in a different way can lead to great inventions and innovations, and those great inventions can change the world. That’s the reason the Cape Argus and LeadSA is getting behind a campaign to Save our Science Centre. A space in which innovation is the order of the day can only mean great things for Cape Town, South Africa and the world. In this series the Science Centre’s founding director, profiles some of the country's top inventions and inventors.
Amelia was born in Port Jackson in 1865 and married Herbert Saddleton Ball, a railway superintendent. They soon moved to Joburg, where Amelia set about making the family chutney on a primus stove in her kitchen. She also raised seven children.
When Herbert retired in 1921, they moved to Cape Town, where they lived in the picturesque coastal village of Fish Hoek. She continued producing chutney on a home industry scale, with her husband taking a few bottles a day by train to central Cape Town to sell.
While selling their chutney, Herbert met a food exporter, Fred Metter, who decided to assist them with marketing, and soon sales were booming. The Balls outgrew their premises in Fish Hoek and established ever larger factories in Diep River and then Retreat. The chutney was exported to England for the first time in 1957, and, by the 1960s, more than two million bottles a year were being sold. Amelia Ball continued to make chutney until she died in Fish Hoek in November 1962, aged 97 years.
In the early 1970s, the family business was sold to Brooke Bonds Oxo, which sold it on to Unilever Foods. The chutney is now exported to southern African countries as well as Germany, Great Britain, New Zealand and Australia. It has become such a popular addition to stews, braais, cheese sandwiches and bobotie that more than 8 000 bottles are produced every day.
Five flavours of Mrs Ball’s Chutney are produced: original, peach, hot, chilli and tomato. The original recipe, which reputedly includes only six ingredients, remains a closely guarded secret, but several enterprising cooks have reverse engineered it to reveal that it mainly comprises peaches, apricots, grape vinegar, sugar, onions, salt and cayenne pepper (at least seven ingredients).
Mrs Ball’s great-grandson, Desmond Ball, has maintained the five generation-long family tradition of making chutneys and uses the original recipe, and traditional techniques, to make a new product called “Amelia’s Hot Chutney”, which is sold in produce markets in Cape Town.
Of course, many other condiments and foodstuffs of South African origin have reached world markets, including biltong, boerewors, chakalaka, bobotie, frikadels, koeksisters, “pofadder” (kudu sausage), smoorsnoek, vetkoek and waterblommetjiebredie. Some of our more original food innovations perhaps deserve a broader audience, such as krummel pap, roti (unleavened bread), melktert, mosbolletjies (aniseed dumplings), “oepsies” (bacon kebabs), pickled mussels and periwinkles, potjiekos, roosterbrood, “smileys” (roasted sheep’s head) and “walkie talkies” (fried chicken feet).
Many South African food and drink brands have also taken the world by storm, including Appletiser, Ina Paarman’s sticky marinade, Maltabella, Marie biscuits, Nando’s peri-peri sauce, Ouma rusks, Provita, Lucky Star pilchards, and Weet-Bix (the latter since 1930).
Mike Bruton was the founding director of the Cape Town Science Centre and is director of imagineering at MTE Studios. He wrote Great South African Inventions (Cambridge University Press).