Ian McMillan: The gift of something to spread on my toast

According to the Chinese calendar, 2010 is the year of the tiger but according to the McMillan calendar, this is the Year of the Chutney.

Let me explain: every Christmas, there seems to be one present you get a lot of. You can have The Year of the Socks or The Year of the Books; it can be The Year of the Woolly Hats or The Year of the Shower Gels. For me, a number of years were The Year of the Wine, when I'd hold up a clanking bottle-shaped parcel and say, in festive mock-inquiry: "I wonder what this can be? Is it a CD or a trombone?" and members of my family would laugh with unconvincing heartiness as they opened their

own socks or gloves.

About a year ago, though, I stopped drinking wine as part of my general fitness programme that includes my geriatric morning press-ups (imagine a donkey from The Year of the Donkey trying to get to its feet after a fall, accompanied by pathetic donkey noises) and my morning walk which makes me gasp and sweat.

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I'm certainly feeling better but my new regime meant that people

couldn't buy me wine for Christmas any more. I have to admit that I wondered what I would get: I thought I might get the odd book token or scarf, or maybe a pair of gloves or that old favourite, what my mother used to call "a nice writing pen".

I was wrong. On Christmas morning, I was delighted to open parcel after parcel containing jars of chutney of every type, colour and size. After a while I looked like a man in a dressing gown who'd decided to open a chutney shop. If I'd have emptied it all into the bath I could have soaked in it, like Cleopatra used to bathe in ass's milk.

I was excited by the chutney, perhaps more excited than I should have been, but I have to admit that I'm a bit of a chutney lover. I have it with my salad, I have it on my sandwiches, I put it in jacket potatoes and sometimes, when I think nobody is looking, I take the lid off a jar, stick my finger in and get a great big lump out and eat it greedily. Some of it inevitably goes down my shirt but I've always thought that if you haven't got some of your food on your clothes then you haven't enjoyed it enough.

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I even like the word: chutney. It's somehow onomatopoeic, the word mirroring the noise the chutney makes when you spoon it from the jar: chut-ney. My grandson Thomas used to like the word when he was little, although he used to call it Chucknee, which is really just chutney used as a weapon in an argument.

Now, though, I have a dilemma. I have a shelf full of chutney standing there like skittles in a bowling alley, and it'll probably last me for most of 2010, but the burning question is: "What on earth will I do now in garden centres?"

You see, despite my best efforts over the decades, I've never really enjoyed my many visits to garden centres. My lovely wife is a big fan

of gardening and, for her, a visit to a garden centre is the equivalent

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of an art lover visiting the National Gallery or a train spotter catching a glimpse of something rare and steamy chugging through

Doncaster station.

It's bliss for her. She's in Garden Heaven, where the angels sit on water features and their harps are made of canes and twine. For me, on the other hand, it's not quite that exciting. My lovely wife looks at a plant. She doesn't like it. She looks at another plant which to me looks exactly like the previous plant but she declares this to be superior in every possible way.

It's her hobby so I don't mind but I always say, at this point, "I'm just off to look at the chutney" and I spend many happy minutes gazing at Farmhouse Chutney or Mango Chutney or Tomato and Cucumber Chutney. I take it from the shelf: like a version of a wine expert, I hold the jar up to the light and see the rays of the sun filtered through the chutney. I read the ingredients aloud and they sound like a little poem. Then, just to keep the economy going in a recession, I always buy some.

We both leave in a happy frame of mind: she's got something to put in the garden, I've got something to spread on my toast. Now, though, that can't happen. Even I, the Man of Chutney, can't justify buying any chutney at the garden centre when I've got Chutney Mountain waiting for me in the pantry.

So if you see me this year in a garden centre gazing distractedly at a display of gnomes, you'll know the chutney's to blame; just give me a sympathetic smile and pass by.

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