Dean Bailey discovers the traditional tastes of Northumberland, developed via Botswana, an 18th Century cookbook, and a sense of community spirit at Northumbrian Pantry
Artisan producers come in many forms. There are those who dream of making their fortune through innovative creations, those who stumble from hobby into small enterprise, and those who create wonderful food simply because they are passionate about what they grow and create.
Alice and David Murray of Northumbrian Pantry, based in the village of Simonburn, Northumberland, are of the latter group, though their work in just under two years has earned them a serious reputation. Stocked by more than 70 retailers, delis and farm shops, available online and at selected food markets, Northumbrian Pantry’s relishes, chutneys, jams, jellies and preserves have long outgrown the Murrays’ kitchen and moved into an outbuilding at their Simonburn home. Here, Alice, David and staff members Sharon and Diane transform wonderful ingredients into food with a distinctly Northumberland flavour.
Alice says: “We started out because of our shared love of food. I’ve always loved food, as a little girl in the kitchen at home with my mother, to growing our own vegetables and getting meat from the farm. I did some chef training at Leiths School of Food and Wine and I always wanted to work with food. David and I worked in hospitality and tourism in Botswana and when we moved to Northumberland we wanted to create the small business we’d always dreamed of.”
Alice quickly found a talent for making preserves using fruit and vegetables from her own plot and her sister’s walled garden.Starting off in her home kitchen, Alice’s work quickly developed and demand grew. David came onboard before the team grew further with the addition of Sharon and Diane, who live locally.
“We learned a lot very quickly,” says David. “Alice’s cooking all comes from her mum and a little bit of chef training, and the flavours she could create with a small jam pan were amazing and fresh; the colours were so vibrant, and the smell was incredible. One of the most important things we learned was to cook in small batches to maintain control over all the elements. We’re very set on doing things the traditional way and getting every batch right.
“Our first recipes were from Alice’s mum’s books, including a Northumbrian chutney made with plums and apples, a tomato and red pepper recipe, and a beetroot and spiced apple one. Those were our major influences and we’ve worked from there.”
Recipe development and research have continued throughout the last two years, particularly on ideas found in the 18th Century book The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy by Hannah Glasse – a direct ancestor of Alice’s family. Alice and David are continuing to work with Northumberland Archives to explore Glasse’s work, including the book, which is thought to be one of the earliest widely printed cookbooks.
“We’ve got an original copy of the book, which we have to be very careful with,” says Alice. “It has a recipe for paco lilla, which is one of the first references to what we know today as piccalilli. That was an inspiration for our own paco lilla, though we had to make a few changes – like not leaving things out in the sun to dry for two days and never allowing the jar to be fully emptied – to meet modern food hygiene standards.”
Having outgrown their own garden, the walled garden and the trees and hedgerows around their village, Alice and David have grown their pool of suppliers. “We started off very simply with what was available in the garden,” says David. “Then we worked with what we could get from the walled garden and what we found while walking locally, particularly crab apples on the trees around the village, but we outgrew those supplies too. Today we work with our neighbour, who has a successful wholesale fruit and veg business. Our long-term goal is to work with local growers. We have a fabulous grower for our red onions and we’re keen to work with more people in our community.”
While Alice and David have a longtime passion for food, creating artisanal produce was all new to them in 2019. Professionals who met while working in Edinburgh, they moved to Botswana together to manage a luxury safari resort in the Okavango Delta before returning to Alice’s native Northumberland in 2014. “The Okavango Delta is an unbelievable, wild and beautiful place and we had a life-changing time there,” says David. “We would never have been able to go back to Edinburgh or London after that, and Northumberland gave us the space and close-knit community we wanted.”
Living in Botswana also opened their eyes to food, adds Alice. “Using what’s in season and available around you is important there and we did some training so we could identify and use the bush fruits, water lily bulbs – which are a real speciality – and the amazing mushrooms which grow in termite mounds in the wet season, though you need to get to them before the baboons!
“Those experiences and catering for people from all over the world with a team of highly talented chefs have definitely shaped what we do today.”
At home in Northumberland, they are ambitious to grow a reputation as an artisan producer, while working closely with others in the local community. “Developing our community is at the core of what we want to achieve,” says David. “We want to work with local suppliers and help them grow, employ local people and make truly local products.
“We’ll do things slow and steady, let them grow organically, and make sure we enjoy the whole journey.”