In a regular series that explores the story and philosophy of the Market’s Slow Food approved traders, this month we talk to Jenny Dawson, owner of Rubies in the Rubble
Bananas with the ‘wrong’ curvature. Cucumbers not straight enough to fit into plastic wrappers. Apples the shape of pears and pears the shape of potatoes. These are just a few of the fine, edible specimens which, thanks to a mix of government regulations and fussy customers, large retailers reject to the tune of hundreds and thousands of tonnes and millions of pounds each year.
Though perfectly nutritious and delicious, this produce—which amounts to between 20 and 40 per cent of that produced by UK farmers—winds up as that buzz word, ‘food waste’, of which the Market—as well as the likes of key campaigners Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall—works tirelessly to fight against.
Nevertheless, back in 2011 when Jenny Dawson started addressing the issue by travelling round local farmers, gathering up this discarded produce before it was wasted and making chutneys and jams out of it, she was one of only a handful of forward-thinking foot soldiers leading the charge.
“When Rubies in the Rubble first started, we had to explain to people that we weren’t picking food out of rubbish bins, but that each week farmers threw away tonnes of tomatoes or bananas because of their shape, size, colouring, or imbalances in supply and demand. We were working with great farmers”—great farmers who were “heartbroken” to see their time, money and effort wasted.
“I was brought up on a farm, so I have a passion for the farming industry and we wanted to make their lives a bit easier.” She knew how to make chutneys thanks to her mother, an artist who was “pretty creative with flavours. She inspired many of our recipes.”
Jenny has rich, comforting memories of her mother with a newspaper, eating hot toast slathered with homemade raspberry jam in front of the fire in the depths of winter, enjoying that peerless, Proustian flavour of a fruit “taken when it is at its best and bottled” to be enjoyed later in the year.
Excited about seasons
“We want to go back to that tradition of being excited about seasons—about that glut of apples in October, or tomatoes straight from the vine in summer,” she continues. Being “obsessed” to the extent that barely a meal goes by in her house without a spoonful of preserved something or other, she feels very strongly about the way a good chutney should be made.
“Really fresh produce, no bulkers or stabilisers, simmered for two to four hours before being bottled by hand,” she instructs. The traditional ingredients of chutney are vinegar, spices and sugar. “Once the sugar to vinegar ratio is right you can really play around with the flavour,” she continues.
Her own range says it all: hot banana, red onion and chilli, apple and ginger, London piccalilli in a refreshingly natural shade of yellow, form the core products. Others come and go according to season and Jenny’s imagination.
“You can ramp up certain spices, play with nuts and different combinations of fruit and vegetables—there’s so much potential for experimenting.” In so doing, she feels connected to a time when we lived in tune with the seasons, valued the foods each brought, and sought to preserve them through a ‘waste not want not’ approach.
“For me, Slow Food is about building an awareness that food is not a commodity, but a natural resource to be cherished. At a time when everything in life is becoming faster, more global and more technical, food should be going in the opposite direction: more local, more valued, enjoyed slowly and carefully.”
At the time of writing, tomatoes are coming into season, which they source from Kent along with their cucumbers, and various exciting chutneys are returning to the menu. As the surplus and misshapen stock floods in, they are trying to preserve as much they can.
“We cook a lot in summer and sell a lot in winter,” Jenny explains, making hay while the sun shines and British fields are abundant. As awareness of food waste increases, so too do Rubies in the Rubble customers, as well as other entrepreneurial groups following in Jenny’s footsteps with juices, snacks and compotes.
“The more we sell, the more we can support farmers by creating a market for their produce—and we can be more inventive. It’s really exciting. Now we just need to convince customers chutney isn’t just about cheese—it can mean so such more.”