There is an amazing smell emanating from Elspeth Biltoft’s kitchen.
She is busy preparing some Christmas staples including her famous sherry mincemeat and also cranberry sauce with port. They are recipes which are pretty much still followed today in the adjacent kitchens of Rosebud Preserves – the business Elspeth started from her kitchen 30 years ago – but on a far larger scale.
It is five years since I last paid a visit to Rosebud Preserves near Masham and there have been a number of key changes. Elspeth, who turns 70 next year, is starting to hand over the day to day running of her business to the next generation in the shape of head chef John Barley and Mark Alderson who she recruited five years ago.
“I’d been in that kitchen for more than 25 years,” she says. “I had my 65th birthday in there. You start to realise that it isn’t just about making the product.”
The last two years have seen a seed change in the way Rosebud operates – not the ethos of how they work or the quality of the produce, much of which is still foraged locally, but the scale of the operation.
In 2017, they moved the labelling and distribution to a unit on a small industrial estate in Masham. It is not only more practical – Elspeth says the lorries always struggled to access the site in the middle of Healey village – but also it freed up more space for creating the famous jams, chutneys and jellies and for product development.
While embracing the need for change if Rosebud is to survive and thrive, Elspeth has no intention of moving away from the business that has been her life and a labour of love for the last 30 years.
It is a business with its integrity and ethos steeped in the past but now looking forward to what comes next. “I am very excited about the future,” she says. “I love talking to people about what we do here and I see that very much as my role in the future. Being out of the kitchen allows me to do that more, to meet our customers to spread the word of what we do.” It will also allow her to spend more time in her beloved nature.
The daughter of a naturalist, it is no surprise that a love of nature is in Eslpeth’s DNA. “Dad was a great walker. He had such a profound effect on what I believe in. 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.” From jellies she experimented with other home grown products.
“I remember making Seville orange marmalade with my dad when I was 15,” she recalls. It is fitting then that to make the 30th anniversary of Rosebud Preserves the team have created a Seville Orange Marmalade Gin Liqueur, in collaboration with their neighbours at Spirit of Masham Distillery.
“When we were discussing what we could create to celebrate our 30th birthday we decided to go back to some of the original items I used to make in my farm kitchen when I first started the business,” she explains.
“Then we looked at what are popular combinations in terms of flavours today and alcohol with fruit kept coming up. So the idea of a fruit infused, gin liqueur began to take seed. Our Seville Orange Marmalade has been a popular product since 1989 so we thought it would work well. The marmalade is still made to the same recipe that I created 30 years ago. It’s all down to a careful cooking process and the quality of the fruit used. The Seville oranges are expertly cultivated in orchards in the heart of Andalucía. The same family has been running the farm for over three generations and the beauty of these oranges is that they have a special sweet bitterness that imparts a superb flavour to our marmalades and now this new liqueur.”
Collaborations like this are important to Elspeth, with Rosebud Preserves creating joint products with the likes of Ampleforth Abbey, Black Sheep Brewery, Sloemotion, Masons Gin and Wensleydale Creamery.
Not all Rosebud’s products are available all the time – that would go against Elspeth’s belief in seasonality. She can still be seen foraging around the fields and lanes near her home something she again credits her upbringing for.
“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 leaving school she worked at the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle and subsequently they offered her a job. But after four years she felt she needed a new challenge, enrolling on a degree course in dress design. Her creativity has been passed down to her own daughters, two of whom are designers, one a very successful shoe designer in her own right. But dress design wasn’t for Elspeth either and after leaving university she did a couple of work placements, including one at Marks and Spencer in quality control, although this too wasn’t quite the right fit for her.
She’d met and married her husband, an Australian, while at college and they spent three months there which gave her time to realise that she needed to have her own business – first making top end curtains, and then, after having her three girls in close succession, making preserves.
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.”
It was 1989 and Rosebud Preserves was born. With a grant from the Rural Development Commission they were able to bring the farm up to standard and Elspeth got to work in their kitchen making their first batch of eight products.
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 US.
Although she has no intention of retiring any time soon, with none of her daughters interested in Rosebud, Elspeth seems happy to hand some of the business to the next generation’’.
“I have been blown away by their passion,” says Elspeth. “I thought I’d find it difficult to step back, because 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 since taking them on than I developed in 20 years.”
It is a time of change at Rosebud Preserves, but not, says 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 on board, 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.” The Bumble Bee Conservation Trust receives a donation from every jar of Yorkshire Wildflower Honey.
But more than that she is determined to create a wildflower meadow in land behind the home she shares with two elderly dogs. “Ultimately, I want to encourage people to reconnect with the landscape and to embrace biodiversity. We can’t change the whole world, but I truly believe we have to start somewhere.”