Behind the scenes at Rosebud Preserves in Healey
PUBLISHED: 00:00 05 April 2019
How preserving the natural environment made a budding kitchen business blossom.
Few of us would relish trekking across open countryside with a wheelbarrow full of crab apples after an afternoon scrambling about for windfalls on our hands and knees. It sounds like a chore, but for Elspeth Biltoft it’s an absolute treat.
‘I am completely grounded in the landscape and connected closely to nature. My mum and dad saw to that,’ she said, visibly abuzz with the idea, like a bee at a pollen party. ‘One of the first things I remember as a child is being up on my dad’s shoulders while he pointed out all the marvellous things in the countryside around us. I absorbed it. It became part of me.’
Elspeth grew up in Marske, a few miles west of Richmond. Her parents were both passionate about the countryside and she spent a lot of time walking and fishing with her father, a natural naturalist who encouraged her to value the flora and fauna of the surrounding landscape.
On their dad-and-daughter nature rambles, they would gather watercress in late January, gulls’ eggs in the early summer months, wild crab apples, sloes and blackberries and armfuls of silky mushrooms in autumn. When they returned home with their bounty, Elspeth’s mother would then show her how to make the most of the wild and wonderful fare with a slew of seasonal preserves from blackberry and apple jam to piccalilli.
‘I’ve always thought that preserves were little miracles,’ she said. ‘It’s such a magical process watching these beautiful jewel-like jars of colour emerging.’
Jams, marmalades, jellies, chutneys and pickles have been Elspeth’s career for 30 years. As founder of Rosebud Preserves in Healey, just outside Masham, she has created a company that employs 17 people and produces an average of 2,000 jars a day (rising to 3,500+ at Christmas, or ‘chutney season’). But she didn’t set out on a foodie path as a teenager; despite her early forays into foraging, she actually sought out a career in design.
A short stint of work experience at the Bowes Museum at Barnard Castle led to a four-year job assisting the in-house designer, followed by a four-year degree in dress design at what was then Newcastle Polytechnic.
‘I knew within a week it wasn’t really for me but, because of the way I was raised, I stuck with it,’ she said.
She met and married her now ex-husband, a marine engineer, while at university and, after a brief post-grad position with Marks & Spencer, decided to go it alone as a specialist curtain-maker for museums (the Bowes Museum was her first customer), stately homes and the like.
After the arrival of her daughters, Katie, Rebecca and Jessica, Elspeth found the curtain commissions too taxing, but she knew she still wanted to work for herself, preferably from home and, if possible, back in her beloved countryside.
In the end, she had to look back to see her future. She had always faithfully followed the traditional preserving recipes she’d inherited from her mum, but now she began experimenting with new flavours, textures and ingredients gathered from the wild and cut from her own kitchen garden.
In 1989, she transformed a 19th century barn at Rosebud Farm into a food production unit, with the help of a grant from the Rural Development Commission and a friendly bank manager (remember them?) with a penchant for pickle, and set about producing jams, jellies, marmalades and pickles to sell at agricultural shows and craft fairs.
‘I made – and still make – preserves the way they’ve always been made, bringing nature into the process,’ she explained. ‘I’ve always enjoyed making something tasty out of whatever nature provides. I think it makes you more creative.’
It can also prove quite lucrative. Attracted by her use of all-natural, often wild ingredients, the independents soon came calling – with Neal’s Yard Dairy leading the charge – and her preserves began appearing on the shelves of delicatessens, cheesemongers, farm shops and in the gift and treat corner at stately homes and hotels.
Rosebud Preserves now sell around the world – in Ireland, Germany, France, Japan and the USA – and there are nigh on 60 products to choose from, including tasty collaborations with Black Sheep Brewery (Great Yorkshire Pickle); Sloemotion (Blackberry & Sloe Gin Jam); Ampleforth Abbey (Cider Marmalade and Beer Fruit Chutney); Masons (Satsuma & Gin Marmalade); and Wensleydale Creamery (Yorkshire Wensleydale Chutney).
Many of the latest additions to Rosebud’s product roster have been created by John Barley, former chef at the Wensleydale Heifer, who joined the team as head creative in the kitchen to work alongside sales, marketing and all-round business brain Mark Alderson.
Elspeth’s marriage broke down in the nineties and she had been running the business alone for a long time, while also raising her daughters. But still, she didn’t relish handing over the everyday running of Rosebud – or her giant cooking pots.
‘I’d spent so much time in the kitchen and running the business that I thought it would be difficult giving it up, like handing your baby over to a stranger,’ said Elspeth, who is still very much involved in the daily decision-making. ‘But it hasn’t been like that at all. I immediately felt a sense of relief and, if I’m honest, I’m just in awe of the new products John’s created.’
Fresh, flavoursome produce remains at the heart of everything Elspeth and her team do. Over the years, they have developed close relationships with English suppliers who care about their crops, gathering fresh herbs from the Vale of York, new season rhubarb from the West Yorkshire triangle and dark, fleshy damsons from an old orchard in the Lyth Valley among many others.
Occasionally, they venture further afield, sourcing organic Seville oranges from a Spanish orchard every January for the last 20 years, but wherever possible they stay local, still ‘shopping’ in hedgerows for otherwise overlooked bounty.
Rosebud’s gooseberry jam is perfumed with wild elderflowers picked in early summer, and scarlet rowanberries, the fruit of the mountain ash, from a plantation in Wensleydale are combined with Bramley apples for a sharp jelly that pairs perfectly with winter game.
‘I love to pick the elderflowers myself,’ said Elspeth. ‘It’s no hardship. In fact, heading out at the end of May to pick on my own feels like such a treat. Last year, I found myself high up in the hills overlooking the Vale of York surrounded by a magnificent azure sky. I was in seventh heaven.’
Elspeth has her sights set on creating a wildflower meadow on pasture land behind her home and barn-based factory, celebrating Rosebud’s connection with The Bumblebee Conservation Trust (which receives a donation from every jar of Yorkshire Wild Flower Honey).
‘Ultimately, I want to encourage people to reconnect with the landscape and to embrace biodiversity,’ said Elspeth. ‘We can’t change the whole world, but we can each look after our own little patch.’