I have been growing fruit and vegetables and cooking for as long as I remember, my earliest memories are in my grandparents greenhouse with the smell of fresh tomatoes with me aged about 2 years old. My interest never wained and in my teenage years I used to spend school lunchtimes in the school greenhouse, and much to my parents amusement even took plants with me over to university in St Andrews, Scotland! My very first house was a tiny Victorian terrace nearly 20 years ago and I had every single outdoor space covered in growbags, the top of the boiler house made a lovely warm spot for germination of early vegetables! Over the years I have twice had an allotment for veg growing but am now in a very fortunate situation where I live with a garden surrounding my own house with a south facing sheltered back garden. I cook my homegrown fruit and vegetables into delicious jams, sauces and cordials for my own family. I also bake every few days to ensure my children eat as much homemade food as possible so I can know every ingredient we are eating is fresh and simple. I am a keen member of my local GIY (grow it yourself) club and we meet regularly to seed and plant swap and share chat on Facebook throughout the year. I am also an member of Slow FoodNI and my local community garden where we grow vegetables in outdoor beds and a polytunnel. I have been actively involved with other Artisan Food producers across N.Ireland since I started my business and this has been a huge source of encouragement and friendship.
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 8 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!
My AGA| Brambleberry Jams
I was fortunate to grow up with an AGA in my teenage years when my mother did a lot of home baking for our large family of 4 girls, and many of my early memories are of my friends mother homegrowing and home preserving on their old cream AGA in the 1970’s (it’s still going strong, but sadly she has recently passed away). I always knew I wanted my own AGA and it took me to my 40’s before I was able to have the right sort of kitchen. We now have a 35 year old bright pillar box red AGA, and we all adore it, we refer to it as a ‘her’ and she is a member of the family! I do all my cooking on her, for the business and the family dinners, and spend every evening sitting at the kitchen table with my back to the AGA making up the Gift Hamper boxes and running the business from an iPad. The steady warmth of the black edges, and the heat rising to the shelf above the AGA provide extra areas for cooking with a warm, dry, steady temperature that no other cooker could provide. My Lemon and Lime Curd is cooked in a double boiler on the black edge of the AGA for hours, meanwhile I can dry chillis and mint leaves on the shelf above the AGA. All my jams and sauces are cooked in a large stainless steal jam pan firstly on the low ring to slowly dissolve the sugar and then boiled on the boiling ring which stays at a steady temperature so I know it’s always at exactly jam temperature as it boils, and never burns. When I’m baking for a craft fair I can bake 8 loaves of bread in the hot oven simultaneously, while making meringues in the bottom oven. I can honestly say I would not have my business Brambleberry Jams without the AGA.
From Alice McIlhagger