Jam-making in north-east Scotland
From cottage industry to worldwide companies, jam is big business in the north-east
With so much soft fruit grown in Angus, it is perhaps ironic that the region, or more accurately Dundee, is synonymous with marmalade made from a citrus fruit that would never grow in chilly Scottish groves. Hannah Ewan uncovered the thriving jam scene around the region
There are several well-kent tales as to the provenance of Dundee marmalade, none watertight. They all, however, have James and Janet Keiller at their heart. We know for certain that Mrs Keiller did not, as the story goes, invent ‘chip marmalade’ (made with chopped rather than crushed rind) since recipes were already circulating in books like Edinburgh cookery teacher Susanna MacIver’s Cookery and Pastry. Whether or not Janet really did buy a bargain armful of Seville oranges from a storm-docked ship in Dundee port, marmalade production in 1797 was brisk enough for her son James to set up ‘James Keiller’, and to re-register it as ‘James Keiller & Son’ in 1804. By the mid-19th century their factory employed 300 staff, and 2 million white ceramic jars of marmalade a year found their way right across the globe.
Nowadays, the only Angus producers of ‘traditional’ Dundee marmalade, boiled up in copper pots (though not to the Keiller recipe), are Mackays and Mrs Bridges. James Keiller & Son was bought by Cambridgeshire-based Robertson’s in 1988, but the area retains its excellent reputation for jams and preserves. Perhaps wisely, the focus has shifted to using the bountiful produce found growing in the area, particularly strawberries and raspberries.
From global companies like Arbroath-based Mackays using fruit from commercial Scottish growers, to domestic kitchen producers like Norma’s Homemade Preserves using fruit grown in her garden near Brechin, a small army of stirrers is making the most of the region’s crop. Between them they make Angus’ jam available from supermarkets, farmers’ markets and everywhere in between.
Happy working from Forfar farmers’ market ‘because that’s where I feel confident’, Norma Mitchell started jam-making to use up a glut of fruit handed in to her local school, swapping it for sugar and skills. She still relies on a community way of trading, exchanging jam for fruit and vegetables from local gardens, and buying anything else she needs from the farmers’ market.
Somewhere in between the giant Mackays outfit and Mitchell falls Isabella’s Preserves. Louise Myles, who has owned the company since 2005, wasn’t long out of Aberdeen University when she took over Isabella Massie’s jam spoon. After staying with Massie and her husband Alastair for six months to learn both the jam and business ropes, she moved to Edzell, closer to a customer base that had outgrown their little Aberdeenshire kitchen.
When Myles answered a request from Alastair to help run a jam stall at the Highland Show, she had no idea she would eventually own the company. ‘I didn’t have this on my mind when I was a student,’ she admits. ‘I thought I might like to run my own business, but I didn’t know it would be in this direction – and I didn’t know I would be so young.’
Having more than doubled production in six years, Isabella’s Preserves now jar 30 tonnes of jams, marmalades and relishes annually. Myles is hoping to extend her reach south of the border, as is another expanding company, Aberfeldy.
‘It is possible to scale up and still keep that artisan quality,’ believes Sandy Gray, who took over Aberfeldy Oatmeal in 2009, moving it from Perthshire to Carmyllie. Gray recently brought Nicoll’s of Strathmore into the brand, the jam range he has run for 11 years, and is now contemplating recruiting his first employee.
‘If I take someone on it would be easy to double production, and the more people who are employed the better.’ The difficult bit will be letting go of some control, having run a solo show for so long. ‘I’m kind of a perfectionist,’ he admits, ‘so they’ll need to be as well. My son already comes with me on delivery days and meets all my customers. I just need him to grow up a bit.’
With the recent planting of new orchards and fruit trees across the region, Angus looks set to become even more of a hub for Scottish fruit, and jam is the ideal long-life, low-tech way of using up that portion of the harvest that might not be pretty enough for a shop punnet. Whether it’s made in a saucepan in a family kitchen or a copper-bottomed vat in a factory, there is always someone, somewhere, stirring a pot of jam in Angus.