Keeping pace with Alison McQuade is not easy. As the sole cook, delivery person, and CEO at McQuade’s Celtic Chutneys, she has to make every minute count.
She’s up by 7 o’clock every morning and then it’s a quick dash to all her suppliers to get fresh ingredients. After that, she’ll be in her commercial kitchen, stirring up a new batch of chutney. At the same time, jars have to be sterilized, labels pasted and anything else to do with the business has to be accomplished by two or three o'clock. Once the chutney is cooked, Alison pours it piping hot into the jars, seals them and leaves them in a cool place to age.
The next step is delivery. She loads up her trusty cart with already-aged jars, then goes round to customers in the vicinity. Orders from further afield are sent out by van or by mail.
Her evenings and weekends are taken up by chutney tastings or charity events, and rare free hours are usually spent with friends.
“Whit, nae chutney?”
Alison’s chutneys are the products of her heart and her heritage. She offers a range of flavours including apple and red chilli, whisky peach, curried banana, mango date, her signature fig and ginger and her latest creation, apricot passion fruit. She also uses seasonal fruit in her chutneys, adding to her range at different times of the year.
McQuade’s Celtic Chutneys have garnered a big following in San Francisco. They can be purchased from more than ten retail outlets and are staples on the menus of an equal number of cafes, bars and restaurants. Making chutneys began as a hobby for Alison, with friends and relatives receiving Christmas gifts of the good stuff. And although she put in many years working at regular desk jobs, being her own boss in a food business seems second nature to her.
“I grew up watching my grandmother cook,” Alison says, looking up from her laptop, on which she is checking orders that have just come in. She is seated on her favourite sofa in her top-floor apartment, which offers a wonderful view of the city. “Granny was well-known for her chutneys. She was also a good manager and taught me to be creative in sourcing for ingredients.”
New food ideas come naturally to Alison. Recently, she added another two items to her repertoire: figs infused with port, and crystallised ginger, both of which are dipped in 99% dark chocolate. Like her chutneys, these are a hit with her customers.
Keep Calm and Chutney On
Alison ventured out of her native Barrhead some 30 years ago, when she worked as a secretary in the US army. After that, she helmed the African desk at UNICEF and then was a legal assistant in New York and LA before eventually settling down in San Francisco.
Together with Jay Marden, her partner in business and in life, she set up McQuade’s Celtic Chutneys about ten years ago. Sadly, Jay passed on in 2010, but Alison has continued the work they began and she is a vital and contributing member of the community.
Every week, she spends five hours in voluntary service at Grace Cathedral and at a soup kitchen. In addition, Alison works regularly on fundraisers for Meals On Wheels of San Francisco. On 8 June, she will be sponsoring a chutney tasting booth at Summertini 2012, a benefit in aid of homeless adults organised by Episcopal Community Services.
Alison may have crossed the pond many years back, but she is very much in touch with her roots. When asked what she counts as her inspiration in life, without hesitation, her answer is “Family.”
Geographical distance has not weakened family ties. Her parents, Frank and Betty, are active senior citizens and Alison has four brothers and a sister. Facebook and Twitter keep them up to speed about what’s happening in each others’ lives and her father Skypes her every evening to say goodnight.
Conversations with Alison are peppered with references to family, and when she comes home once a year, it’s a month-long family reunion. In May, her family gathered in Destin, Florida to celebrate her brother's wedding in the traditional Scottish way.
A little-known fact about Alison is that she can do a mean Highland Fling, but she is characteristically modest about her talent, preferring, instead, to focus attention on her latest project: a Scottish café, which she plans to open later this year in Tenderloin heights or the upper Tenderloin area.
It's a breakfast and lunch joint serving homemade soups like cock-a-leekie, hearty sandwiches on tattie scones and of course, lots of chutney. Coffee and tea will come with complementary Irn Bru tablet or whisky tablet and Empire biscuits will also be on the menu. As a nod to the Broons and Oor Willie, the cafe's going to be called the “But an' Ben"!
So if you're going to San Francisco, know that in a wee corner, you can enjoy traditional Scottish fare served with a warm Scottish accent and lots of heart.
Recipe: Yorkshire pudding with goat's cheese and chutney (Alison recommends McQuade's, but other brands are available).
½ pint of milk
A couple of tablespoons of vegetable oil
6oz young goat cheese
salt and black pepper
Set the oven to 425° F (220° C)
Beat together the milk, eggs, a pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Add the flour, whisk well and let the mixture stand for at least half an hour. Drizzle a little oil into each of the holes in a 12 muffin tin (or 24 hole mini-muffin tin for canape sized yorkies.) Put the tin in the oven.
When the oil is very hot and sizzling, add the Yorkshire pudding mixture in each tin, filling them about two thirds full. On top of the batter, add a large teaspoon of goat cheese to the centre of each yorkshire pud.
Return it to the oven and let them cook for 20 minutes until beautifully puffed up and golden.
Serve while hot with a tasty chutney like Fig and Ginger or Whisky Peach.
- Alison's website: www.mcquadechutneys.com
- KJ Gan is an author based in Singapore: www.kjgan.com