What a good idea it was of Valerie’s at Wares of Knutsford to start a preserving magazine! For someone like me, living in the Outer Hebrides where I have to ‘import’ much of my fruit for preserving, “The Good Life” was a rich dip into a wonderland of “hedgerows . . . rosehips, blackberries and elderberries”. I was fascinated to read about preserving in wartime Britain; and coming across the story of Marguerite Patten travelling the country in a touring caravan and stopping passers-by made me want to pay a small personal tribute to that great lady, who passed away in June 2015 aged 99.
I didn’t know her, of course – her touring caravan probably didn’t make it to the Isle of Barra – and, oops, I wasn’t born then, either! But several years ago another visionary lady, here in Barra, decided to encourage people to grow their own and become more self-sufficient, as people used to be on these islands. Sarah MacLean started with “Island Markets” every six weeks or so and has now extended to a local producers’ shop, known as “Bùth Bharraigh”*, which just means in English, “The Barra Shop.” It’s part of a wider project called “Hebridean Living”. It’s social enterprise at its best, creating jobs and opportunities for people in this small community.
Back in those early days of the island markets, my daughter suggested I make jam for them. She can’t remember why, particularly, and neither can I. But I knew nothing about making jam, and my early efforts were a bit hit-and-miss to say the least! Then came my birthday, and my son presented me with a book, saying rather apologetically, “It’s probably a bit basic, mum.”
My goodness! He couldn’t have done better. The book was called, “The Basic Basics: Jams, Preserves and Chutneys Handbook. All you need to know to prepare and store over 200 of the world’s best preserves,” and it was by Marguerite Patten. It’s been reprinted time after time.
For the modest sum of £7.99 I had my hands on a wealth of knowledge and experience generously shared. I think I would say that the word “generous” sums up my experience of this book. The whole range of preserving is there, from essential information (definitely read this before you start) to complex (to me, anyway) methods of preserving such as crystallized fruit. I’ll get there one day (when I don’t have to make so many preserves for Bùth Bharraigh) but so far I have only begun to plumb the depths of the possibilities this book opens up.
Yes, I’m now the island’s main producer of preserves of different kinds and I run a limited company with my husband (though we haven’t had time to do a website yet!). It’s all down to Marguerite Patten. The only other incentivehad been a lady in a neighbouring island who used to make home-made preserves for sale, but I’d never have been able to follow in her footsteps had it not been for Marguerite Patten’s sound and kind advice. I say, “kind” in the same way that I came to the word, “generous” earlier; her book is full of the plenitude of the hedgerow and of her own rich and full life in food preservation and cooking. I’m indebted to her. What an important heritage she has left.
I want to say before I finish this little piece that I’m also indebted to Edna and Colin Campbell, of Tollie Croft, Tollie of Brahan, Lochussie, near Inverness. They go out of their way to ensure I have all that I need of fruits that we can’t grow easily in wild and windy Barra. I am proud to be part of the tradition that makes the most of our hedgerows and our farms. I am heartened every time I visit the garden project in Barra where adults with learning difficulties produce some of the fruit and vegetables I use. In the tiny wood near the house I make sure I leave the centre of the prickly bramble bushes (!) for the birds in migratory passage here.
And last but not least . . . I couldn’t do it without the help of Wares of Knutsford. Other companies charge the earth to send jars to the islands – Wares of Knutsford charges the minimum, and Hebridean Preserves and Pastries Ltd can keep going. Thank you, Valerie!
*Bùth Bharraigh has a Facebook page:
tel 01871 817948