One of the things I quickly found about fruit cheese is that, in the UK at least, it is a very quiet backwater off the river that is jam. Information about making this type of preserve is hard to come by and recipes few and far between (reliable ones even rarer!) Although I have learnt a great deal from reading and experiment, I have always hankered after learning from people more experienced than myself. And, since few people can call themselves more experienced in the realm of preserves than Vivien Lloyd, I was very excited when I discovered that she offers consultations.
Vivien comes with impeccable credentials: rigorously trained by the Women’s Institute and 30 years as a preserves-maker, judge, writer, trainer and determined campaigner for the maintenance of traditional preserving methods. When our initial phone conversation established that she thought it best to visit my kitchen in Tottenham to see how I work, I confess to being more than a little nervous. Her standards are clearly exacting – could my home-grown methods really pass muster with such a doyenne?
My anxiety was misplaced. The moment she arrived in my kitchen it was clear that we had such a shared passion that any thought of being found wanting was replaced by my desire to ask every one of the hundred burning questions that I had been saving up. And what a pleasure to talk with someone so knowledgeable. (I realised, not for the first time, that my long-suffering friends might not find the topic quite as fascinating as I do.) By the time we came to making a fruit cheese together I had relaxed completely and fell easily into my familiar cooking routine.
The ‘cheese’ we tackled was gooseberry as it is the one I’ve found trickiest to master. Although customers have been complimentary I have never been 100% happy with the results as I feel the delicate flavour of the fruit tends to get lost. To my great interest Vivien felt that that the fruit was not ideally suited for fruit cheese for that very reason. However she was very complimentary about my quince, apple chilli, medlar and Morello cherry cheeses; in fact in a tasting test (with a few competitor’s products lined up for comparison!) I am very proud to report that my quince cheese came out on top. This has given me a huge boost of confidence that I am doing the right thing.
Apple and Chilli: “Perfect texture and glossy exterior. Flavour excellent balance of fruit and heat. I could not stop eating it”
Medlar: “Lovely rich even colour and well spiced”
Morello Cherry “True fruit flavour with good hint of spice, rich bright colour and clean cut texture” “Outstanding” Vivien Lloyd
Read more about Vivien and find invaluable advice about making preserves on her website
Where social media is concerned I freely admit that I am not one of life’s early adopters. When I first heard about Twitter I wondered why on earth anyone would want to be part of an unending stream of sound-bite consciousness and was in no doubt I would not be joining the flow. Anyway, when I launched Fruit Magpie I was persuaded that I really had to get an account – so essential for business, blah de blah. That was a year ago. Now of course I use it all the time and have connected with so many interesting people and organisations that I might never come across otherwise that I can’t imagine doing without it.
It was through Twitter that I started learning more about other businesses with a food waste reduction ethos – in fact I was delighted to find how much of a live issue this was with many brilliant innovative businesses, charities and social enterprises all putting their shoulder to the wheel. This was how I came across The Food Rush: “a future of food magazine focusing on the intersection of food, technology, innovation and sustainability” and how they came to write this lovely article about me.
Amazing news – I’M THROUGH TO THE FINALS!
A huge ‘thank you’ to those of you who voted for me – I’ve had tremendous support for which I am humbly grateful. As well as my stockists, where I have been running sampling events and chatting to customers, I also have to thank my friends who allowed me to hi-jack not one but three NGS open garden events to offer fruit cheese tasting and to cajole their visitors into voting Fruit Magpie!
The Urban Food Award entrants have now been whittled down to the three with the most votes in each category. In the next (and final) round the products will be taste-judged by an expert panel of chefs and food writers and the winner announced at an event at Borough Market in September. Whatever happens you can be sure I will be blogging about it here!
The 2016 Urban Food Awards are “London’s third annual celebration of the best enterprises, products and people in the capital’s good food and drink scene.” And I’m super-excited as I’m up for an award! So, cutting straight to the chase, I’m asking anyone who supports what I do to vote for Fruit Magpie in the category ‘Proper Preserves’ HERE before the deadline on 8th July 2016.
Still reading? Good! Now let me tell you why I’m asking you to vote for me. Many awards are based purely on taste but the Urban Food Awards were created to celebrate “good food practices and people behind the products.” I try to make good food as well as possible by:
- using high quality garden or allotment fruit that would otherwise waste
- sourcing it locally (the majority comes from within a 5 mile radius of my house!)
- sourcing other ingredients locally too if I can (the sugar is UK grown)
- only using fruit grown without chemicals
- reducing packaging and using recycled/recycleable materials wherever possible
- home composting the parts of the fruit I can’t use
- making a product which is vegan
- selling it locally
- employing locals when I need extra help (and paying them properly)
In early July the entrants with the most votes in each category will be shortlisted, following which the judging panel choose the winners. As the business is still small and new I am working doubly hard to get through this first round, so PLEASE VOTE FOR FRUIT MAGPIE! Thank you.
The Urban Food Awards are run by the Mayor of London, London Food Link and Borough Market
The Jellied Eel is ” London’s magazine for ethical eating” and the summer issue has a great article about Tottenham in it – including something on a small fruit cheese business!
I was at a friend’s place yesterday, helping her with her National Gardens Scheme open garden by selling plants and generally giving horticultural help. Kindly she allowed me to bring along some fruit cheese for her visitors to try. As I set up a little corner with a plate of quince cheese and pieces of cracker, one of the other helpers was intrigued: what was this? As I explained her face lit up: “Ah, pâte de fruit!”
Anne was French and had been brought up with these little fruit jellies, rolled in sugar, as treats to be relished often but particularly at special occasions. She reminisced fondly that they had appeared without fail every Christmastime in her family. We Googled “quince” and found it translated as “coing”. So: Pâte de Coing.
I was fascinated by this new knowledge which drew together some references I’d come across previously about fruit cheese being cut into small squares, rolled in sugar and served as little jewel-coloured sweet treats. In fact a friend had recently sent me an article on just this so of course I am now on a mission to find out more…. and to make some! The picture shows my first effort: “pâte de rhubarbe”
Towards the end of last year (yes, I’m still catching up on my posts!) I had a phone call which left me jumping around the kitchen in delight: I had been selected as one of a handful of businesses to receive financial support and mentoring via the Plunkett Foundation’s Urban Food Routes programme.
Here is what Plunkett say about their programme:
“Urban Food Routes is an initiative which gives expert advice and funding to help small food enterprises in London thrive and benefit their local communities. Urban Food Routes provides business advice to small enterprises that work in all aspects of food, from those that grow and produce it, to those that sell it. The programme aims to help enterprises to become more confident about their sustainability and the impact they can have on their local community, the environment and the contribution they make to the capital’s economy. ”
The timing couldn’t have been better – not only was I in dire need of some equipment and wondering how to raise funds but I was also facing some challenges which I knew would benefit greatly from some expert input. Above all, though, I felt it a real honour that I had been selected and a vote of confidence in the business, particularly my obsession with tackling food waste and determination to make the business as sustainable as possible. As the Urban Food Routes programme is strongly committed to sustainable food and helping businesses to benefit their local community we were on the same page from the start when it came to talking about how to develop the business.
So for the last few months I have been receiving some amazing support for which I am truly grateful. With the help of the grant I have bought an automatic sieve to help deal with the larger quantities of fruit I am now using (the medlar cheese would most certainly not have happened this year without it!) and with the help of the business mentoring I have gone from selling just at farmer’s markets in blocks to now also supplying delicatessens in jars and attracting an increasing number of customers. The support has recently come to a close and I can genuinely say it has been invaluable.
Urban Food Routes is co-ordinated and delivered by the Plunkett Foundation, helped by London Food Link, and funded by Seeds of Change and the Mayor of London
It has been a beautiful day here this Easter Friday so I took the opportunity to get out my secateurs and do a little maintenance pruning on the quince tree.
Quinces seem to have a naturally untidy habit of growth so there is often some general pruning to do. Like most fruit trees (with the exception of stone fruits such as plums and cherries), this is best done in the dormant season so I was just in time as the leaf buds were nearly ready to burst.
Pruning has a bit of mystique around it but is really not that difficult when you know why you are doing it. In this case I was trying to keep the tree healthy and fruiting well by cutting out dead wood, crossing growths and weak shoots growing inside the crown (general good husbandry) and then ‘tipping back’ (lightly pruning) some of the longer growths. As quince fruits mainly on the ends of the growth made the previous year and less on side spurs, this shortening of branches will probably reduce the number of fruits a little but this will hopefully mean that the remaining fruit will be bigger. I’m also hoping (vainly, no doubt!) that shortening branch tips will help keep the tree more compact: it is currently 6 metres tall and still growing lustily!
A few years ago I noticed that the bark on the trunk was starting to peel low down. This worried me as I had lost some plants to honey fungus and this can be an early sign. However several years on the tree is obviously still happy and the bark has now peeled well up into the crown. Some trees shed some bark naturally and although I couldn’t find any references to quinces being one of these it seems that perhaps they can be.
Wow, it has been over five months since my last blog. Where did the time go?!
Of course the first thing that happened after I last posted was that fruit availability, which had been ramping up steadily, suddenly exploded: all of the quinces that are the mainstay of my business started to become ready at once. I have found that the best time to pick my own tree is a two (three at-a-push) week period in late September/early October, although outside the sheltered microclimate of my London garden the fruit ripens a couple of weeks later. Quince trees can be tremendously productive and my own, which is the variety ‘Meeches Prolific’, has been known to give a harvest of 150 kg of fruit – not for nothing is it called prolific! Without really trying too hard I was offered most of the fruit from another three trees and a few bags more besides, so for a good month I and a helper were occupied with picking, cleaning, preparing, cooking, pureeing and freezing the fruit.
During this time I was also lucky enough to also bring in a lot of cooking apples and, in November, a healthy quantity of medlars, the last fruit of the season. It had become apparent well before then that one freezer would not be enough!
[Picture: sugar and spice being mixed for a batch of spiced apple fruit cheese]
Last year I had a huge slice of luck: before I had really considered making anything other than quince cheese I stumbled across some local damson trees heavily laden with fruit. As it was clear that the crop was just going to waste I determined to try my hand at a traditional damson cheese. The result was such a hit that the first block I supplied to Wildes for Alexandra Palace farmers market sold out in half an hour. Unsurprisingly they have been asking when the next damson cheese would be appearing ever since!
Anyway, as life is rarely simple, the trees which had supplied me so handsomely last year decided they were overdue a holiday. The entire crop of fruit would have fitted in an egg cup. Biennial bearing is common amongst some types of fruit trees and damsons are no exception, although a poor crop can be just as much to do with weather and soil conditions. Either way, after much asking around it became clear that it had generally been a bad year for them (although whether just in my local area or more widely I don’t know) but amazingly, just as I had resigned myself to a damson-less 2015, I was delighted to get two offers in quick succession and damson cheese was back on the menu.
Damsons are a type of small plum originating in Damascus, Syria (the name is thought to be derived from “Damascene plum”). They have an intense, sharp flavour and produce a dramatic-looking fruit cheese, so dark as to be almost black. Although they can be eaten fresh when fully ripe they tend to be used for cooking.
There is a strong tradition of growing this fruit in the north of England, especially Cumbria and Shropshire where orchards of them used to be widespread. This is no doubt due at least partly to the fact that they are particularly hardy and able to tolerate higher rainfall and less sunshine than many other types of plum.
Daiv Sizer has written a great little guide to these lovely fruits here
And for information on plums generally, check out this guide from Orange Pippins fruit tree nursery