Belinda Williams set up her first business at 14 making freezer foods. Passionate about food, cooking, cycling and Yorkshire, she talks to Catherine Scott about her new book and all things soup.
Food has always played a massive part in Belinda Williams’s life.
Growing up on a farm in Wensleydale her mum was a great cook and taught her children to waste not want not.
“Both my parents were from the war generation and although we weren’t poor they never wasted anything. My mum was a great cook and we’d help. I could cook most things by the age of ten. We would make everything, even the butter and the cream. We weren’t like other families, we had never seen a food packet before we went to friends’ houses.”
It was not only a love of good food their her parents instilled in Belinda, it was also a work ethic and entrepreneurial flair
“They worked incredibly hard and we knew from an early age that if we wanted something we had to go out and earn money to get it.” Belinda remembers selling eggs from the bottom of the lane and at 14 set up her first business making and selling food for people to put in their freezer. The family even ran farmhouse teas from their kitchen.
It is not surprising with this work ethic and foodie background that both Belinda and her brother Andrew went into the food industry.
Andrew is known for Debbie and Andrew sausages and new brand Heck, while Belinda with her husband Terry are the Yorkshire Party Company and, more recently, award winning Yorkshire Provender – makers of delicious soups and sauces.
“I always knew I would end up working in food,” says Belinda, 48.
“I just love food and everything about it – cooking it and eating it.”
After leaving school Belinda trained as a cordon bleu cook and then travelled the world cooking on yachts and for the racehorse owner Robert Sangster.
She met Terry in Australia, he was running a bar and worked as his assistant, eventually taking over the kitchen.
They returned to England and decided to set up the Yorkshire Party Company, providing high quality catering for weddings and prestigious events.
“All our catering work is in summer – when we often do six weddings a weekend – but we had a hole in our income in winter.”
So in 2004 she started Yorkshire Provender, formerly the Yorkshire Soup Company, using the Party Company’s kitchen.
“Andrew was travelling down to a food show in London and he asked if I wanted him to take down some soups for people to try. So I sent him with pots of our beetroot, ginger and horseradish, one of the first soups we made. The next thing I know Andrew is ringing me up saying Selfridges wanted to place an order. And that’s they way it has really been. People have come to us wanting to stock our soups which is amazing but at the time it was daunting. Selfridges wanted a bar code, I didn’t have anything like that and ended up having to borrow some from Andrew.”
Belinda’s aim was to make soups like her mum made, full of fresh vegetables and herbs and free from additives and preservatives.
“I wanted to create a palette of colourful soups to tempt adults, the way pots of Play-Doh tempt children. I don’t have a food manufacturing background, so I didn’t consider adding preservatives, gums, thickeners and stabilisers – I just used fresh vegetables and herbs. Yorkshire Provender began to fly before I’d thought the whole thing through.”
After Selfridges, Belinda had orders from Fortnum & Mason and Harrods.
Yorkshire Provender was still tiny and nobody wanted to deliver for them, so she had no choice but to climb into a van at 5am and drive to London.
Now they are also in Tesco, Waitrose, Booths, Co-Op and independent shops, and a wholesaler makes the deliveries. They produce 87 tonnes of soup a week and have just had their first order from Belgium.
“Our soups are made like they would be at home for a dinner party. I’ve taught the 24 people who work for me to cook properly, so that ingredients are added at the correct point, not just chucked in and forgotten about. Overcooking reduces the quality in all sorts of ways.”
She has moved Yorkshire Provender out from the Yorkshire Party Company kitchens into its own unit at Leeming Bar industrial estate, although the vegetables are still prepared at the sister company.
Belinda is passionate about her ingredients, using local farmers and produce where possible.
The key to her soups’ shelf life is the novel way the soups are first heated to a high temperature and then quickly chilled.
It not only means the soups keep their vibrant colours but it kills off bacteria.
She loves being creative with her soups although Terry always has one eye on the finances.
“I came up with the idea of putting saffron in a soup, and he asked was I aware how much saffron costs?”
When I meet Belinda in the kitchen of her converted farmhouse near Bedale she seems in her element,
A large photograph of her eldest son Joss, now 21, hangs on the wall advertising one of her soups.
“Ben (her third son aged 18) still calls it Joss’s soup. All the boys love cooking and food and have grown up eating our soups.” Middle son Louis is at university in Newcastle.
Belinda is also starting to offer cookery courses from her own kitchen.
“People have just forgotten how to cook,” she says.
She also has her own cookery book out, about, you guessed it, soup.
Secrets of the soups revealed in book
Belinda Williams and Yorkshire Provender recently won the Taste of Yorkshire Awards at the White Rose Awards.
As well as the current eight soups, Yorkshire Provender has a range of sauces and Belinda Williams hopes to add more things to the brand.
Normally in 600g cartons, a 2.2kg version is now available.
Soups include beetroot, ginger and horseradish; pea, spinach and mint; root vegetable with pearl barley; silky butternut squash with gentle spice; chicken and butternut soup with lentils and cumin; tomato and red pepper soup with Wensleydale; rustic veg and ham soup with lentils and creamy mushroom soup and fresh herbs.
Delicious Soups, by Belinda Williams, is published by Ryland Peters & Small (£16.99) Belinda will be signing copies of her book today at Richmond Town Hall from noon. There will also be a chance to sample Yorkshire Provender Soups.
For more information visit www.yorkshireprovender.co.uk