We visited Alice McIlhagger of the very popular Brambleberry Jams in Lisburn Co. Antrim.
“I live with a small, but very useful, garden surrounding my house. The back is south facing and perfectly sheltered by a high red brick wall. When we moved in 5 years ago this was a new build house and the builders soil was just clay with a thin layer of topsoil. I have worked from the very start to get rid of the clay and replace it with compost – a mixture of council compost initially, then very old horse manure and now homemade compost made over the past 5 years. I have been planting small fruit trees each year and now have a lovely collection of fresh fruits each autumn for jams.
The highlight 2014 for me was investing in a greenhouse in March, so by August I had a terrific crop of my homegrown tomatoes for my tomato relish. My front garden is blessed with a natural mixed hedgerow which does not lead to a public road and includes a large Elder, wild blackberries, and now autumn raspberries as well. I intend to keep gradually increasing the flower bed infront of the hedge to include more and more edible plants (I have blackcurrants, redcurrants and whitecurrants coming on) and hope the neighbours won’t notice as the front garden gradually starts to look more and more edible every year!”
Q: What makes your product unique?
A: My jams and sauces are unique to me because they are all cooked using my own recipes and techniques used at home for years before becoming commercially available. I cook in small batches on my Aga at home and this slow warming and cooking affects and develops the flavours. My range of flavours have all eaten by us at home with family meals for years before they would be available in a retailers.
Q: Where do you source your raw ingredients?
A: As many as possible are homegrown by me or from friends gardens, orchards and vegetable patches. I live in a tiny village near a Strawberry farm, a Tomato farm and lots of tiny country roads with wild blackberries in the hedges. The sugar I use is fair trade cane sugar because it gives the best sweetness so you need less sugar. The only preserving agent used is freshly squeezed lemons, and these will be organic when possible. For my award winning dessert sauce range that are based on double cream I drive to Draynes farm outside Lisburn and buy it directly from the farm so it’s totally fresh and you drive past the cows to get to the farm office.
Q: What inspires you as a producer?
A: I am inspired by the changing seasons, my range of flavours changes throughout the year to reflect what is available and I can alter my own recipes if it’s a good year for a certain tree in my garden. If it’s a good year for plums, Damsons or pears I will cook accordingly. The weather affects my range of flavours from one year to the next.
Q: How did you get started?
A: I started to sell my products just over 3 years ago after bringing my homemade foods to a school craft fair, this gave me confidence to contact my local council business department and ask for help. Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council have been a terrific help at every step of developing into a sustainable business.
Q: Why do you think it’s important to keep local?
A: I enjoy using local products and selling locally because it gives me connections to my community. I choose to use locally supplier for everything from my jars to my printing. We have terrific fresh product here in N.Ireland and it’s great to use those fruits and vegetables as much as possible and keep old preserving techniques alive with modern twists and being able to sell and advertise on-line to a local market is wonderful.
Q: What motto do you live/work by?
A: Get Up, Dress Up, Turn Up! As a mum of 2 primary school aged children I need tons of self-motivation to run my own business around school hours/term times, which all parents of young children know isn’t easy. This business means I can bring up my own family and work from home. I squeeze as much into every 24hrs as possible.
Q: Where can we buy your products?
A: They are available from Bite to Savour in Studio Souk, Belfast; from Cafe Vic Ryn on the Moira Road Lisburn; Indie Fude in Comber; Post House Cafe in Waringstown and at various local craft and food fairs throughout the year. My own website is also a shop and on my Facebook page I constantly update it with whatever I’m cooking and where my next fair will be.
Q: What food best compliments your product? Or what is your favourite way of using your product?
A: My jam range is aimed at breakfast toast preferably over homemade wheaten; my savoury range are condiments to compliment either a plain healthy meal like chicken breast and vegetables or beef and potatoes and can also be used as a dip or with crackers and cheese. The dessert sauces are best used with ice-cream or cake and be used to either cheer up a bought dessert or be used by the homecook to compliment a homemade pavlova or over banana bread.
he artisan food movement here in N. Ireland has grown at a rapid rate as many home cooks have gained the confidence to make their own recipes (made with local produce) commercially available. This movement is very important to me and I see it as part our little country gaining confidence on a world scale. We have some of the cleanest air, coastlines and farms in the world and it’s time we celebrated that and showed the world what we can produce here as finished products, not shipping out only as raw materials.
Visit www.brambleberryjams.com to see a full gallery of their work.