Fruits of the Forage – preserves and preservation

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Bert and Fred Thorneycroft, as Fruits of the Forage, have been making award-winning jams and chutneys from gleaned and foraged fruits for over four years. Moving from hedgerows and home kitchens to abandoned orchards and commercial premises, they are now campaigning to preserve the heritage fruit varieties of Britain. 

Locavore spoke to Bert about wild flavours, ancient orchards, and leaving a legacy for the people and the wildlife alike.

What was the beginning of Fruits of the Forage?

When I was a kid, my Mum would always make jam, and my Grandad got us into making beer. Later on, me and my brother, Fred, got into making beers using different wild herbs and foraged ingredients. When I finished university my Mum had organised a charity Christmas market, and I made a few jams and beers for that. Because I needed to make some money, I picked and foraged the fruit from wherever I could find it. It went really well.

A couple of years later, Fred did the same thing. It was a really good year for fruit that year, so he carried on, and decided to commit all his time to it. He spent the next year or so experimenting with different recipes. From those experiments in the home kitchen he managed to win ten Great Taste Awards. We’re still using most of these recipes today.

Where do your ideas and recipes come from?

It tends to be that we find some fruit, or another ingredient, and then think about what we can make with it.  We’ve been gradually exploring different uses for each fruit, and trying out things that aren’t typically used, especially in more mass-scale products. For example, we wanted to do a chilli jam with wild garlic, and so came up with a way to preserve the wild garlic in cider vinegar and rapeseed oil. Wild garlic’s got a limited season, but this meant we could use it all year round.

We don’t use any additives in any of our jams or chutneys. It’s all high fruit content, with sugar to preserve, and all the acidity comes from the fruit. We’re not like some other companies who say “it’s all hand-made using traditional methods” but then add a load of pectin and citric acid to help it set.

The wild and heritage fruits we use are better for making preserves than fruit you can buy commercially now. With more intense flavours they are better for cooking. For example, our pear and apple chutney was massively improved when we found enough heritage pears to be able to use them exclusively. 

We’ve got one milling machine which we use to allow us to process things like sloes. At home you can really only make a jelly or a gin from sloes, because the fruit’s too small to process by hand. So we use this mechanical process, but only to make using the foraged fruit economically viable. We’ve realised you can make fantastic stuff on a small scale, and it’s easy to make a great product, but it’s much harder to make a great product that’s also profitable.

Fred picking plums

From where do you source your ingredients?

We’re based in Cheshire, in Macclesfield. In the western counties, lots of damsons used to be grown. Cheshire, being close to Manchester, used to be the most important source of fruit for the big northern cities, growing pears, apples, and damsons in the past. But now there’s no real commercial fruit growing. It’s mainly dairy farming. Damsons were grown in hedgerows, so there are a lot of damsons still in the hedges. Every farmhouse has a huge Bramley apple tree. You can get 200kg off a tree like that. And all these big orchards have just been abandoned, pretty much.

We heard about our first big orchard from a guy at a trade show. It’s in Worcestershire, in the Vale of Evesham. Everywhere else in Britain, the apple was the first crop, plums and pears were secondary, but in the Vale plums were the first crop. They were the most famous in Britain for jam-making. So we set off down there and found the orchard. It was about 100 trees of these really traditional plum varieties. Eventually we tracked down the farmer who owned it. He was happy for us to pick them, as he had no time to even pick a little basketful for himself – so we picked some for him as well. If you really explored round the Vale you’d find so much fruit, you’d get lost in it, really. That one orchard in one afternoon we got about 650kg of fruit.

We pick from loads of other places – Shropshire, Somerset, a stately home in Wrexham. We’ve got a lead on a big orchard in Cambridgeshire. We’re still finding loads round Macclesfield as well. We’ll go a couple of hours away for a good crop. Sometimes we’ll stay down for a day or two, to fill the van.

If we didn’t pick this fruit, it’d all go to waste, really. Most of the places we pick, the owner has already picked what they need, or they don’t pick any at all. You don’t really see anyone picking the wild fruit, the elderberries and the sloes and such. Wildlife obviously needs it, but we find the best fruit, the best yield, is always at the top of the tree which we can’t reach, so there’s plenty left for birds and insects. You can be ankle deep in crab apples under a tree, sometimes. There’s plenty to go around.

Bert gathering wild garlic

What are your plans for the future?

We need to employ more people, we want to scale up. You can’t really just spend one day picking plums and then a whole week on cooking them – the plum season is only about a month long. We’re hoping we can get into some bigger shops and guarantee some work for people. We want to attract people but it’s not easy when its such seasonal work. We need to have enough work to be able to train people properly.

We also want to find new methods and products. Making jam is great but its not a massively growing market. We’re developing a couple of sauces – a damson sauce and a no-sugar barbecue sauce, sweetened with pears and dates. We ‘re looking to a younger market than maybe the jam traditionally appeals to, though we still want to keep the jams as traditional as possible. We’re also waiting on planning permission to expand our kitchen.

You’re working on ways to preserve the heritage varieties of fruit. How are you doing this?

The wild fruit will always sustain itself, but a lot of the old orchards are traditional varieties that stopped being planted in the 1950s, really. We realise a lot of these are starting to die. And in twenty to thirty years most of these trees will be gone. It seems a bit pointless somehow. We don’t want to just be taking fruit, we don’t want to be just making money from this wild resource, and not giving back.

Modern fruit trees are grafted onto a different rootstock to make a tree with certain characteristics, such as producing fruit quickly – but with a shorter lifespan. The traditional damsons and such aren’t grafted, they’re grown off their own roots which start sending up hundreds of small shoots, small trees.

We realised we could distribute these for free. We started with a Facebook campaign, and handing some out at market along with some raspberry canes. The response was brialliant – we gave away about 140 last year. Some people got the message about preserving the heritage, some were just pleased with a free tree. With climate change, and the mass extinction that we’re supposedly entering, there are lots of groups of people planting trees. There’s the Great Northern Forest, for example. So there’s no reason why we can’t grow trees and produce fruit at the same time, especially these fruits that are hard to buy.

We want to get together with charities working with vulnerable people, and young people. Often they‘ll have growing spaces. In the future these people can use the fruit themselves, or we can pick it and swap it for some of our jams – our normal way of trading – or they could even pick the fruit and sell it to us, make a bit of money. The other side is a bit more difficult, which is persuading farmers to plant fruit trees in the hedges on their land. That can be a lot more challenging though we have started making progress. It’s a more sustainable way of producing quite specialist ingredients. There are benefits beyond us and our company. Whatever happens to Fruits of the Forage, the benefits will still be there for the wildlife, for the communities. There’ll be a legacy of some kind.

How does sustainability come into play in the rest of your business?

Everything we use in the production process is reusable – the boxes we pick into, the tubs that we freeze fruit in – so when we’re making jam, there’s pretty much no waste, just some paper kitchen towel.

The jam pan we use cooks the fruit in a vacuum, meaning it boils at around 90 degrees, which cooks at a lower temperature to preserve flavour and also save energy. It’s much more efficient, and we can do bigger batches. All our packaging for the finished products is recyclable – plain cardboard, glass, paper bags. One of the things we need to look at is, when sending smaller orders, we use bubble wrap which is kind of unavoidable.

How do you think the coming political changes will affect your business?

I would like to know that, too! There’s a big export market for traditional British products like jams and marmalades. We were in talks with an English woman who has a distribution company in France, though I guess that won’t be going anywhere for a while now.

I don’t think we make any glass jars in Britain. Ours are from Bulgaria, and I know a lot are made in Germany or France. I read of one jam company saying it will be harder to source jars after Brexit, because manufacturers aren’t allotting as many jars to Britain because we’re not seen as growth market anymore. 

Something I’ve not really seen spoken about on the news is that the EU has just signed a trade agreement with Japan. The Japanese are starting to consume a lot of jam, they’re getting into British jam and marmalade on toast for breakfast, and English tea. So what happens to that for us, I don’t know. A free trade deal with USA could affect our agriculture, our food and environmental standards. The EU has quite high standards, that’s one of the good things about it. We’ll have to wait and see, I guess.

Collecting wild ingredients

Finally, why do you do what you do?

I like exploring forgotten ingredients and flavours. We’re creating a sustainable taste of the British landscape that can benefit us and benefit wildlife, too. The best thing is finding the fruit, these forgotten orchards. A bit like a Victorian botanical explorer searching for new exotic plants, but searching for forgotten heritage fruits here in the UK. There are lots of reasons to enjoy what I do, more and more all the time.

For more on Fruits of the Forage, visit their website, or find them on Twitter and Facebook.

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