A jam-packed career

An interview with Penny Clark of Special Preserves

Penny Clark is one half of the small Cheshire company Special Preserves, who specialise in homemade jam, chutney and fruit curds. Penny started the business in 2011 with longtime friend Sarah Longley, and now offers a varied range of preserves at farmers’ markets and via an online shop.

“I’ve always been interested in cooking and making my own preserves,” says Penny. “I made a few jars of chutney for Christmas presents, and was surprised at how well they went down. It wasn’t until I was browsing in a local deli with Sarah, though, that I realised we could actually make a business out of it.”

The first step was to get their home kitchen inspected and successfully signed off by the local authority Food Safety Team.Experts from the local Trading Standards Service were also then kindly on hand to advise the pair about the legal food labelling information they were required to display on their products, including food names, ingredient composition and weight declarations.

“Our first product was apple chutney,” recalls Penny. “Sarah had a big garden with lots of apple trees, so we had plenty of locally sourced raw ingredients! In fact, our logo grew out of that first product – it’s an apple tree and a serpent made out of our initials, representing the garden of Eden.

“We try to source our ingredients as locally as possible – I’m on the waiting list for an allotment so that we can start growing our own. In the meantime, we trade jars of preserves with allotment owners for surplus crops – I’ve just brought home a bag of beetroot this morning. My friend’s hens are responsible for many of the eggs we use for our fruit curds. As we use local fruit wherever we can, our range is subject to seasonal change – I’ve got some gooseberry jam in at the moment, but we won’t be able to replace it when it’s gone, not until next year. Although it’s not always possible to buy locally, we always use the best quality produce we can.

Sarah (left) and Penny of Special Preserves

“Our best selling chutney is probably the hot chilli jam, a red pepper and chilli relish. To make it, I chop red peppers, chillies, tomatoes and spices in the food processor for a few seconds, then mix it all with vinegar and sugar and let it cook slowly for a long time, until all the flavours marry together. Once it’s potted, it lasts about a year in the jar. It’s great for eating with cheese, salad, drizzled over chicken or just as a sauce. The other day, I made coleslaw and mixed a spoonful of the jam into the mayonnaise to give it a kick – it was delicious!”

Penny’s now become so accomplished at preserving that for the last couple of years she’s been asked to judge the jams at a local agricultural show.

“When judging, I look at the general appearance of the container, and whether the lid ‘pops’ when it’s opened,” she explains. “If it doesn’t, that means either the jam  wasn’t potted correctly or the jar’s already been opened. The set should be right, neither too liquid nor too firm, the colour should be vibrant and, of course, the taste must be fresh and fruity.”

Penny’s top tips for novice preservers

1. If you’re new to making chutney, a simple one to begin with is apple or tomato, as the fruit doesn’t require too much fiddly preparation.

2. When you’re cooking the chutney, bring the pan to a boil and then turn the heat down to a simmer, stir it regularly and keep an eye on it! There’s nothing worse than a panful of burnt chutney.

3. If you only purchase one piece of equipment, make it a funnel for spillage-free potting up.

4. For best results, let it age in the jar for a couple of months before you eat it.

To find out more about Special Preserves, find them at farmers’ markets or to order products, please visit www.specialpreserves.co.uk

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