Spot someone trawling North Yorkshire’s hedgerows and fields at this time of year and it’s likely to be Elspeth Biltoft. As she celebrates 25 years at the helm of Rosebud Preserves, she tells Catherine Scott about her plans for the foodie institution.
In three converted barns situated just south of Wensleydale on the north side of a wide valley with open views across beautiful countryside, the Rosebud Preserves team prepares a range of more than 50 sweet and savoury preserves in the same way they have for the last 25 years.
Around 2,000 jars a day are produced, made principally by hand and in small batches using the best available ingredients bought and gathered locally wherever possible.
They include wild fruit and flowers picked from the surrounding hedgerows each spring and autumn – crab apples and rowanberries to make fruit jellies, the aromatic elderflowers to perfume gooseberry jam.
There are damsons from a long established orchard in the Lyth Valley, Cumbria, fresh locally grown herbs, green tomatoes from Lancashire, beetroot and rhubarb from Yorkshire and much of the rest, unless it is termed ‘exotic’, from surrounding counties.
As Elspeth lists the mouth-watering natural and, almost more importantly, seasonal ingredients which go into her award-winning secret recipes, the passion is clear.
She tempts me with beetroot and horseradish relish, but then explains that it is only available between August and December as that is when beetroot is at its best. There are no corners cut here. Elspeth seems to take pride in every single jar that comes out of the converted barns in the tiny village of Healey which is home to Rosebud Preserves. She refuses to use pectin in her products, ‘you wouldn’t use it if you were making jam at home’. Her fruit content is also higher than normal shop bought preserves.
She knows all her suppliers personally, including the Spanish lady who provides the oranges for her Seville Orange Marmalade and the farmer who lets her pick crab apples from his tree.
Her love of the North Yorkshire countryside and all its bounty, she says, comes from her father and growing up near Richmond.
“Dad was a great walker. He had such a profound effect on what I believe in. I used to go for miles on his shoulders when I was tiny and we’d pick wild watercress from the becks in January when it is at its most potent and collect lapwing eggs to eat with salad, unthinkable now. We gathered mushrooms in autumn, sloes, rowens and crab apples. Dad grew everything. We had damsons and plums and apples. I was making jellies from rose hips and crab apples with Mum from a very early age.”
It was making jellies which really captured a young Elspeth’s imagination.
“It is like alchemy,” she says. “I was always fascinated by how jellies were created and how you ended up with the most amazing translucent and colourful product.” From jellies she experimented with other home grown products.
“I started making wine out of fruits and even dandelions. My dad made his own beer and I think I probably got it from him. I have to admit that some of it was ghastly. I made marrow rum which was terrible and never to be repeated.”
Her love of nature can be traced back another generation. Her paternal grandfather was a professional gardener.
“We were always brought up on home grown vegetables and fruit. Dad had a kitchen garden and an allotment in Richmond. Everything we ate was seasonal. If it wasn’t foraged from the wild it was grown in the garden.” It is an ethos she has taken into her business. However Elspeth had never intended to make jams and chutneys her career.
“After doing my A-levels I didn’t really know what I wanted to do,” she says. “I did a fortnight’s work experience at the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle and subsequently they offered me a job. Working at the museum was pivotal to how I feel about quality. I love history, quality and craftsmanship.” But after four years she felt she needed a new challenge.
“I went to Newcastle and enrolled on a degree in dress design. I’d always made a lot of my own clothes and I loved it. I was creative and it seemed like a good thing to do.”
But she knew quite quickly that the four year BA Hons course was not for her.
“On the first day I thought ‘I’m in the wrong place’.”
But Elspeth Biltoft is no quitter and so she completed the degree.
“I had committed to it. I was older than the other students, but I stuck with it. I just didn’t have the talent to be a designer.”
After leaving university she did a couple of work placements, including one at Marks and Spencer in quality control.
“I quite enjoyed it and ended up staying a year. But after a year I realised that I was a square peg in a round hole – it wasn’t what I wanted to do.”
She’d met and married her husband, an Australian, while at college and he suggested they spend some time in his home country.
“We went for three months and it gave me time to think about what I really wanted to do. It made me realise that I needed to be self-employed. I had my background from the museum and fashion and I decided that I would make top quality, customer-made curtains for country homes.”
She approached some of her old contacts at the Bowes Museum who just happened to need three pairs of Empire curtains.
“I made them and that was the beginning of self-employment and I have never looked back. I made curtains for other museums and St Mary’s College I really enjoyed it but I started to think it was about time I had family.
She had three girls in quick succession Katie, now 32, Rebecca, 30 and Jess who is 28. Her eldest and youngest daughters have inherited their mother’s creative and entrepreneurial flair. Katie designs and makes high quality handbags, while Jess is a T-shirt designer and model. Both life in London. Becky works for 20th Century Fox.
“None of them have any interest in making jam,” she says with a smile. “It took up such a lot of my time as they were growing up, I think they may resent it a bit, but they all have an eye for quality which I am very proud of,” says Elspeth.
With three young children, Elspeth and her husband decided to go into business together.
“He had a great aptitude for selling and I had a love of quality. I also had a huge passion for the countryside and all things rural and so we started to make our own preserves.”
They started by making half a dozen jars and took them to their bank manager.
“We had no business plan or anything except the sample of the product which he loved. He said he loved what we were doing and that he’s back us. It just wouldn’t happen today.”
It was 1989 and Rosebud Preserves was born.With a grant from the Rural Development Commission they were able to bring the farm up with standard and Elspeth got to work in their kitchen making their first batch of eight products.
“Some were my mum’s recipes she gave to me when I was little.”
Among her first products were Seville Orange Marmalade and Sweet Cucumber Pickle, still old favourites at Rosebud.”
They decided to sell their wares at country shows rather than into shops.
“We did about 200 shows a year for the first four years,” recalls Elspeth now in her early 60s.
After she and her husband divorced, she concentrated on speciality food shops and delis and has always refused to sell to supermarkets. Rosebud’s award-winning products are sold by Liberty of London and Neal’s Yard Dairy. A large number of stately homes, the Black Sheep Brewery and Theakstons are just some of the leading names Rosebud produces jams for.They now have 60 different products, and 25 per cent of what they make now is sold in the States. But Elspeth has one eye on the future and is aware that the naturally produced preserves market is increasingly competitive.
“I have been very lucky over the years that people have approached me wanting to stock our products, but I feel that I want to do better before I retire.”
Although she has no intention of retiring any time soon, with none of her daughters interested in Rosebud, Elspeth has employed what she calls ‘the next generation’ head chef, John Barley, and Mark Alderson who is responsible for sales and marketing.
“I have been blown away by their passion,” says Elspeth. John, a former chef from the award-winning Wensleydale Heifer, is developing recipes using Rosebud products as well as taking over a lot of the actual preserve making.
“I thought I’d find it difficult to step back, it has been my baby since 1989. But John and Mark make such a brilliant team and have some fantastic ideas. We’ve developed more products in the last three months than I developed in 20 years.”
Mark is developing a new website, and there are plans for a small tea room above the kitchen and collaborations with some new producers are planned. It is a time of change at Rosebud Preserves, but not, stresses Elspeth in their commitment to natural products and traditional processes.
“People are more interested in their food and its provenance than ever before and that excites me,” she says
With Mark and John now onboard, Elspeth would like to get more involved in protecting the countryside she loves so much.
“I would like to do more to support the environment. I am passionate about bees and we are planning to start selling honey, with some of the profits going to the Bumble Bee Conservation Trust. I would like to rent a field next door and have my own hives as well as grow elderflower.
“I really want to put something back into the countryside which has given me so much.”