Puckett’s Pickles - adding a bit of spice to the Yorkshire food scene
PUBLISHED: 15:01 19 March 2017
A York entrepreneur reveals how she’s bringing a tangy taste of family life to the table.
There’s a key ingredient in Sarah Puckett’s pickles that you won’t find anywhere else. Other brands can mimic her spicing and source the same fresh seasonal veggies, but only she can add the piquant peculiarities of her own family to the pickling pan.
‘The older Pucketts were seafarers, bringing back interesting spices that their wives would use to make pickles,’ she explained. ‘Genetically, we’re programmed not to be jam-makers; it’s just not in us. We’re picklers.’
Her products pay tribute to her colourful, foodie family. Not only are they sold as ‘Puckett’s Pickles’, but they’re also imbued with the sweetness, spice, tartness and heat of her ancestors, most notably in Captain’s Puckett’s pickled onions, a recipe honed by her intrepid sea-faring father to explosive effect (I won’t reveal the real family name for them – Sarah swore me to secrecy – but the firing cannon on the label should give you a clue as to their potential after-effects).
‘One of my fondest memories from childhood – and the sort of feeling I wanted to induce in Puckett’s Pickles customers – was the lovely warm glow I got when mum did one of her fridge-cleaning suppers,’ said Sarah. ‘She’d make what she called ‘bubble and squawk’ using any odd bits and pieces she found in the fridge and, honestly, the end result was my favourite thing in the world. We’d graze and the conversation would flow and all would be very right with the world.’
But how did she get from ‘bubble and squawk’ to Puckett’s Puckalilli? Well, like many good ideas, it started over a sarnie. Or rather, a sarnie chain.
Sarah worked at Pret a Manger for 15 years, opening its first branch in New York before moving to old York in 2007 as operations manager for the North of England. She branched out on her own in 2013, buoyed by the praise she’d received from her fellow Preters for the jars of homemade pickle she’d bring to meetings to add a bit of spice to the boardroom sarnies.
‘When I’m at farmers’ markets now, the other food producers take the mick out of me because I’m always cleaning my stall and setting out my jars like soldiers,’ she said. ‘I know it’s just a farmers’ market but I’ve got that Pret ethos ingrained in me. And anyway, this is my brand and I want it to look its best.’
She’s also echoing the Pret blueprint of ‘business with a conscience’.
‘They look after the environment, their suppliers and their staff,’ said Sarah. ‘I like their honesty and transparency.
‘In terms of my own business, I can’t cheat; it’s not in me. I try to use Yorkshire tomatoes because they’re delicious but if I can’t get them I don’t put ‘Yorkshire tomatoes’ on the label. And just look at my labels – they’re small and relatively plain so there’s no hiding the ingredients inside the jar. The vegetables have to be incredibly fresh or it would be obvious for all to see.’
She gets her veg from Love’s family greengrocer in East Parade, Heworth, the smart York suburb where she’s lived for the last decade.
‘I could go to market myself and get the produce a bit cheaper, but Andrew at Love’s is an expert in his field and gives great advice,’ Sarah explained. ‘It’s worth those extra pennies when he finds me the very best tomatoes and the freshest beetroot.
Ingredients for beetroot and orange pickle
Carrot and cardamon
Every thing you need for red onion chutney
Everything you need for red onion chutney
Fragrant combination of red onion, chilli and rosemary
Sarah adds the finishing touch with a label
Red onions are thinly sliced
Spiced tomato chutney
‘There’s a trend at the moment for using waste veg for chutneys, but frankly I don’t think it stands up to scrutiny. Why not buy fresh veg, making sure the farmer gets a good price for his produce and your customer gets a quality product? Yes, manky veg is cheap but it’s a lose-lose situation for your supplier and buyer.’
She also uses the finest British organic cider vinegar, which is less harsh and doesn’t need to be offset with large quantities of sugar (British again, when it’s needed).
Until now, Sarah has been making her chutneys and pickles at home, using a four-litre pan to make around 200 jars a day. From March 1st, however, she’ll be producing Puckett’s Pickles in what she refers to as her new ‘Pickle Palace’ – a unit on a small industrial park just off the A19.
She’s looking forward to having staff – just the one, but it’s an exciting start – having her house back (the constant bubbling pans have damaged her living room ceiling) and having a new, 160-litre pickling pan, which she’s had custom-made in Italy.
The move will give her a chance to upscale production of her award-winning core products – spiced tomato; spiced apple; red onion; beetroot and orange; chilli; carrot and cardamom; pear and apricot; Puckalilli; and Captain Puckett’s – while adding more seasonal specials and innovative ranges.
‘I’ve just been experimenting with white cabbage, fennel and rose water,’ said Sarah. ‘I have no idea where that came from, but it really, really works.
‘I want to start working with more botanicals, camomile, juniper and sea buckthorn. I’m playing at the moment, but I’m sure it’ll develop into something. I think we should trust Mother Nature more. She knows what she’s doing when she encourages botanicals to flourish in the hedgerows around fields of amazing veg. If they grow together, they go together.’
Sarah didn’t train as a chef, but she clearly has a refined palate – something picked up on by top Yorkshire chefs Andrew Pern and Stephanie Moon. When she was starting out, she sent samples to both and got a brace of positive, enthusiastic responses, which couldn’t have come at a better time.
‘I was at quite a low ebb because a deli owner in York, who shall remain nameless, had just torn me to shreds,’ she said. ‘Apparently, my pickle was too loose and needed a two-year shelf life before she’d even look at it again. I very nearly threw the lot in the bin outside. But when I got home, Perny phoned and told me he loved my pickles. He was so encouraging and enthusiastic and has been on my side ever since.’
Sarah’s pickles and chutneys don’t have a two-year shelf life because they’re made with fresh, seasonal ingredients and little else. And frankly, with products this good, you’ll be lucky if there’s a spoonful left in the jar in two weeks, never mind two years.
‘One of the few complaints I get from customers is that my jars aren’t big enough and only last for one sitting,’ she said. ‘Families open them, eat them and then come back for more.
‘I honestly believe that it’s not just about the great veg, vinegar and spices; the magic dust is the unquantifiable flavour that comes from a family recipe that’s slowly evolved over time. The customer can’t quite put their finger on why it tastes so good, but it’s there all the same. It’s the way I cook it; the family recipes behind it; the care that’s gone into it.’
Sarah has a clear idea who her customer is, where she lives, what she buys and what she likes. She doesn’t try to pander to a mass, multifaceted market; instead, she creates products for this idealised shopper in the firm belief others will follow.
‘People call me uncompromising, which I think is a polite word for stubborn,’ she said. ‘A lot of businesses make the mistake of trying to tick too many boxes and please too many people. Yes, I need to produce a spicy chutney and a sweet one to cater for a range of tastes, but other than that it’s up to me. I can tell you now that there will never be any peppers or sultanas in my pickles because I hate them. If I’m putting my name on it, it’s got to be an honest product because I’m an honest person.’
Perhaps it’s not surprising then that the Puckett family motto is: ‘We might not always be right but we’re never wrong’.
When Sarah took a three-month sabbatical from Pret to sail round Britain (in the wash of her seafaring ancestors), she wasn’t wrong as it fired up her sense of adventure and spirit of independence. When she moved to York against her London-based friends’ advice, she wasn’t wrong, now describing her northern home as ‘awesome, cool and confident’. And when she launched her own business, based on several lifetimes of evolving family recipes, she wasn’t wrong as she swiftly received a White Rose Taste of Yorkshire Award for her efforts.
Now, she’s expanding into her first factory unit. But is she wrong to think bigger is better? And will increasing production inevitably lead to decreasing standards?
‘Size doesn’t have to make a difference to your principals and ethics,’ said Sarah. ‘Pret didn’t change its core ethos as it got bigger and neither will I.
‘Like I said, I’m uncompromising. I’d never break the law but I love breaking the rules.’
Meet the Pucketts
My Dear Grandma
‘I thought her kitchen and larder were the next best thing to Narnia; full of magical experiences and unexpected delights. There was always something to learn, something to taste, and treats whenever I came in with a scraped knee. All my inspiration finds its roots in her kitchen.’
My Glamorous Mum
‘My mum had it all. She was a superb cook and sophisticated with it, renowned for her apparently effortless dinner parties. I would creep out on to the landing just to hear her guests’ compliments. She taught me the social importance of food, and to demand the very best—not just from ingredients and suppliers but from myself too.’
My Intrepid Father
‘As a ship’s captain, my dad really did sail the seven seas. He’d bring back strange ingredients and cook up all sorts of wonderful things—from tandoori to taramasalata. It was while on his travels that he dreamt up the recipe for Captain Puckett’s (pickled onions). Because of my dad, I’m more adventurous with my ingredients.’