Kitchen Garden in Stroud
PUBLISHED: 16:27 21 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:55 20 February 2013
What do Proust and orange marmalade have in common? Both evoke a remembrance of things past. Kitchen Garden in Stroud is celebrating 20 years of making award-winning preserves that combine up-to-the-minute flavours with a jarful of memories...
Proust is so right: smell is as closely interwoven with memory as threads in a Harris Tweed jacket. Tantalisingly reaching my nose at this moment are the intermingled aromas of oranges and sweetly-caramelising onions. And, suddenly, in my mind, I'm back in my grandmother's kitchen, where the huge heavy jam-pan, only heaved down from the high cupboard-top at certain times of year, is bubbling away. If I close my eyes, I know that out of the kitchen door is the warm and musty earth-smelling greenhouse, where tomatoes are ripening on strong green stalks; in the larder are glass jars of ginger beer bubbling away alongside sticky pots of lemon curd; and upstairs are the beds I can use as trampolines without any fear of reprimand.
But it's not the late '60s; nor is it my grandmother in the kitchen. It's Emma Edwards, a very 21st-century chef, who's developing new recipes for Kitchen Garden, the Stroud-based food company that's won award after award for its jams, marmalades, chutneys, mustards, sauces and dressings.
The smells from the various pans simmering on the stoves are just as evocative for her.
"Toast and marmalade, and hot dogs," she says, as we sniff the air appreciatively.
No wonder this particular kitchen is so reminiscent of the past, for the methods they use are as traditional as the Cotswold hills. Up to 10,000 jars are produced each week, yet all the contents - from blackberry and apple jam to Tewkesbury mustard - are handmade, whether that means peeling Seville oranges, direct from a family farm in Spain, or stirring pots of simmering gooseberries.
It's 20 years now since Kitchen Garden was launched by Barbara and Robin Moinet. And although the methods they use are no different two decades later, they never dreamed they'd one day be employing 18 staff and exporting their preserves, condiments and sauces to America, Sweden and Hong Kong, as well as supplying farm shops and delis the length and breadth of Britain.
"We didn't have a single employee 20 years ago," Barbara says. "I worked with a friend, cooking at home in our individual kitchens, while the children were at toddler group and school. We did everything ourselves: stirring the pots, labeling, selling."
She'd always loved cooking - watched her mother and grandmother busy in the kitchen, as a child - so boiling up batches of blackberry and apple jam in her own hillside cottage was a natural and enjoyable pastime in those few child-free hours. "I didn't start it thinking: I want a business, now how can I make some money? It was simply something I got pleasure from," she recalls.
The profile of customers hasn't changed a huge amount either: people who want homemade but who don't have the time - or inclination - to get out their own cooking pots; people for whom traditional strawberry jam is a bit of welcome nostalgia; those who are prepared to spend a little bit more for quality and taste.
You might think, in these straitened times, that customers like this will be as elusive as a banker's bonus. Not so. In fact, demand is as strong as ever. So much so that Barbara and Robin have redesigned their labels to reflect Brits' desires to go back to their roots. From now on, Kitchen Garden labels will feature photographs of trugs full of vegetables, satisfyingly-muddy wellies, wheelbarrows, old-fashioned watering cans, a busy greenhouse, and Black Rock chickens - all from the Moinets' own garden.
"We don't have a lot of time, but we neglect our house in favour of our garden," Barbara laughs. "Robin's out there looking after his chickens or chopping wood most weekends; and I'm out there in the greenhouse or the garden, where I grow soft fruits, rhubarb, cabbages, potatoes, onions and beetroot, among other things.
"Our new labels are focusing on that whole thing of the kitchen garden, the allotment - really where we began - with fresh ingredients direct from the soil.
"I'm sure the surge of interest in allotments partly comes from the current complicated financial situation. In a garden, you have some feeling of control: even if you lose your strawberries to rabbits, your beetroot might do really well. There's something elemental to growing your own food; something you can understand, even if you've never done it before."
The new labels were officially launched at the International Food and Drink Exhibition in London last month - a reflection of Kitchen Garden's ambitions for the coming year. While sticking rigidly to their core values - they won't sell to supermarkets, for example - they are planning to expand, maybe into France, Spain and Italy. European countries, with their often-large expat communities, are extremely interested in products like this. "We've just bought a house in France and our local supermarket has a whole area with Marmite, Imperial Leather soap and tins of chicken korma!"
But more and more, it's the nationals themselves who are becoming converts. Americans love the whole idea of the Moinet family set-up, working in the heart of Gloucestershire: "In fact," says Barbara, "for the very first time, we've put 'Handmade in the Cotswolds' on our labels. It's an interesting one because we do sell all over the country as well as exporting, and we were nervous about doing it in case it limited our market elsewhere. But we've spoken to people in places such as Derbyshire, Lincoln and Cheshire, who have all said the Cotswolds are a brand that people respect. They know it's made in England - it gives it a provenance; and we're proud of that."
Sweden's enthusiasm was a surprise. Nor did Barbara and Robin have to persuade them: the Scandinavian retailers made the approach. "Surprisingly, they import a lot of British products. Money doesn't seem to be an issue - it's a wealthy country. And with the state of the pound against the Euro, it's a good time for us to see if we can interest others."
Walking round the building - which once housed Stroud Brewery - shows at first hand the painstaking and careful process by which everything is made: blackberry vinegar, which scooped 'best of' awards from Taste of the West and Great Taste last year; Tewkesbury mustard, made in the 15th century tradition from mustard and horseradish; Old Spot Real Ale chutney (a best-seller, using ale from Uley Brewery); and any other of the 100-plus ranges.
Produce is as local as possible - apples, plums, beetroot, pears, onions - though nearly all the soft fruits are from continental Europe because of the unsuitability of UK varieties. When deliveries arrive - which can be up to half a ton of fruit and veg a week - it's all hands on deck to prepare it.
In the larger kitchen today, Shirley Stinchcombe is stirring two 150-litre vats, which will each fill 200 jars. There are gooseberries cooking, part of a new chutney based on a recipe from Barbara's own mother.
"Although we've adapted some for today's tastes, a lot of our recipes have been handed down through the generations. Both of us come from families that bottled and pickled. Robin's father used to make his own wine; my mother and grandmother always made preserves and pickles. It was very much a pick-it-from-the-garden, put-it-in-the-pan culture."
Nor is the culture stopping there. The Moinets' children, Lucy, 22, and Oliver, 20, are keen cooks; furthermore, Lucy is studying hospitality management at Portsmouth.
Of course, Kitchen Garden has also had setbacks that can be chalked up to 'experience'. One was the withdrawal of their recent 'Inspired by' range, which featured strong flavours - spices and chilies - from other parts of the world. "It was a tough decision because we'd put a lot into it. But it shows how quickly tastes can change, and you have to move on."
But the successes are coming thick and fast. Last month, for example, their beetroot chutney and horseradish source featured on Ready Steady Cook.
"Every day, I learn something new, and that's really the joy of it," Barbara says. "I wouldn't still be doing it 20 years on if it was the same as it's always been. I'd be bored by now. But the fact is, I've learned to be a businesswoman in that time." A businesswoman producing jars that bottle up-to-the-minute flavours with wonderful memories.
You can buy Kitchen Garden products from the website at www.kitchengardenpreserves.co.uk, or from independent retailers such as Over Farm Market near Gloucester; Pound Farm, Brookthorpe; Greatfield Farmshop, Up Hatherley; The Natural Grocery Store, Cheltenham; Westonbirt Arboretum and William's Fish Market & Food Hall in Nailsworth.