Nigella seeds, chutney and Panch Phoron fudge
Panch Phoron fudge is a proper grown-up treat, full of huge savoury and piquant flavours which jostle beautifully with the sweetness of caramelised butter. It's not one for the faint of heart, but particularly suits those who enjoy Indian food, marmalade, balsamic vinegar, bitter lemons or other bittersweet confections.
When Rita said she was putting mustard seed into our fudge, I did wonder where we were going. But although spiced fudge sounds like a leap of faith, it has many good precedents in European culture: chilli chocolate, salted caramels and a large swathe of dishes dating back to Medieval cookery rely on similar sharp-sweet flavours. In Indian cuisines, spices in desserts and sweet treats are a staple, such as cardamom in kulfi (Indian ice-cream) and other milk-based sweets, and is what elevates them.
In the past, sweet foods were often enhanced with savoury, bitter or even sour ingredients. This mixture survives today in mince pies, many relishes and preserves, Chinese sweet & sour dishes, and sweet pickles. My favourite mango chutneys contain nigella seeds (try those by Gingerbeard's Preserves or Bhajiman) — the bitterness of the seeds in the sweetness of mango gives the chutney a fantastic tang*.
Our Panch Phoron (literally: "five spices") fudge uses nigella in the same way, along with cumin, fennel, mustard (oh yes!) and fenugreek. Fenugreek or methi is a distinctive curry spice regularly used in Indian dishes: its faint bitter tang adds savour to meat or vegetable flavours, just as lemon juice freshens or salt intensifies them. All the Panch Phoron seeds have very distinctive tastes and aromas for which it is difficult to find any substitutes, which is exactly what makes our Panch Phoron fudge unique.
Rita's father's family hail from Bengal, where the seed mix of Panch Phoron is a staple cooking ingredient. It is frequently used as the base upon which to build flavour with other spices in meat and savoury dishes, so it seemed quite natural to Rita to experiment with adding the toasted seeds into our fudge — and my goodness, what a result. The flavours are both strong and sophisticated, so this fudge makes a very good after-dinner treat, a gift for dedicated foodies, or of course for just wolfing down in a quiet moment.
* Top tip for a picnic centrepiece: mix a nigella-mango chutney with mayonnaise and chopped chicken to make a magnificent Coronation Chicken. Serve on a green salad with very cold lager or a tangy soft drink (try Nix And Kix chilli lemonades; a great option for teetotallers and designated drivers). Serve a plateful of Panch Phoron fudge afterwards, when everyone's palate has been prepared by the Coronation Chicken, and your fame as Picnic Master will be unassailable.