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Preserving tradition

The company bringing organic principles to authentically handmade jams, jellies and chutneys
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
Huntly Herbs' Anna, Fraser and Roisin Wilson

This article first appeared in our ‘Why organic is the answer’ issue of My Green Pod Magazine, distributed with The Guardian on 03 September 2021. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

Whitestones was a mixed family farm with sheep, cattle, barley and silage for feeding the stock.

‘My Mum, Fiona, started Huntly Herbs as a diversification when my brother and I left home’, explains Anna Wilson, partner in Huntly Herbs. ‘She had an interest in herbs and was looking for a new project, I think.’

At the time organic herb growing was a niche enterprise; the gap in the market created a strong case for an organic herb business that chimed with Fiona’s own beliefs around growing.

‘My Mum had been researching food production, global agriculture and nutrition and was beginning to feel that organic was the way forward for a variety of environmental and health reasons’, Anna explains.

From herbs to preserves

The organic herb business flourished, but was in some ways a victim of its own success.

‘We kept having customers saying the sage plant we sold them was fantastic and still going strong five years later’, Anna tells us. ‘They had given cuttings to all their friends, which wasn’t ideal from a sales perspective!’

Preserve making presented an opportunity for an additional income stream; ‘jams and chutneys have a good shelf life compared with potted plants’, Anna explains, ‘and if people like them they come back for more.’

The preserves were originally intended to tide Huntly Herbs over through the winter, when the herb plants were out of season. Soon the chutneys in particular became more and more popular, presenting greater potential for expansion.

Organic growing and processing

Despite the shift in focus, organic production remains central to the business and Huntly Herbs is registered with the Soil Association as both an organic producer and an organic processor.

‘We wanted customers to know that we really are properly organic, not just ‘natural’ or ‘chemical free’ or any of the other slightly vague terms that are sometimes used’, Anna explains. ‘The Soil Association symbol is widely recognised by consumers and respected, too. Being Soil Association certified is a good discipline; it means we’re always striving to improve in terms of our impact on the environment – whether that’s our packaging or our growing techniques.’

The preserves have won lots of awards, the latest being the 2021 Soil Association BOOM Award in the Store Cupboard category. For Anna, the secret to success is always starting recipe development with flavour as the priority; ‘It sounds obvious’, she says, ‘but if you start out with costings it’s too easy to compromise on flavour.’

Hands before machines

Making each preserve by hand is also crucial for Anna, who feels ’handmade’ is an overused term in the food sector. ‘To me, ‘handmade’ means there’s a real person behind every jar’, Anna tells us. ‘It irks me when I see preserves that I know are made in small factories being described as handmade; all they mean is that someone is using their hands to operate the machinery.’

The team at Huntly Herbs chops almost all the fruit and vegetables by hand, stirs the pans by hand and even pours the jams and chutneys by hand.

‘It’s not just a question of being needlessly antiquated or a luddite’, Anna explains; ‘I think the hand chopping and pouring gives a texture to the chutneys that you don’t find in preserves that have been through a food processor and filling machine.’

Grow and make your own

Lockdown has inspired many to try their hand at making jams and chutneys, in some cases to go with their first homemade loaves of sourdough. Preserves also make great gifts and the process itself can be both therapeutic and rewarding.

There’s nothing more disappointing than finding the jam you slaved over has gone mouldy, so don’t forget to sterilise your jars and lids. Once that’s done, Anna’s key tip for anyone who wants to give preserve making a go is to cook jams in small batches and boil them fast, and to cook chutneys in bigger batches, slowly.

‘For me cooking the jams and jellies is all about capturing as much of the fresh fruit flavour as possible – cooking them in small batches, as fast as possible, to avoid boiling away too much of that bright, fruity flavour’, Anna explains. ‘The chutneys are more creative in a way, assembling layers of flavours from the vegetables, fruit and spices and then finding out how the flavours work together as the chutney matures.’

When it comes to advice for successful organic growing, Anna says we must not be intimidated by social media perfection. ‘It’s great to look for inspiration’, she tells us, ‘but a garden doesn’t need to be weedless and full of infrastructure to be productive. Also, have a compost heap and put as much material in as you can; that way you can add back to the soil what you remove in the form of crops and weeds.’

For Anna, organic growing is different rather than harder; ‘You can’t always reach for an easy solution in the form of a spray or plant food’, she explains, ‘but then it forces you to get to the root of the issue and adapt your system or techniques to deal with whatever problems you have encountered, which is probably a better solution in the end.’

‘I have been saying for years’, Anna adds, ‘if you can grow or produce something organically, why wouldn’t you?’

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