Balmoral Show: Farming’s biggest event shows small is beautiful
Alice McIlhagger was always destined for a career as a foodie — with a grandfather who was responsible for introducing yoghurt to Northern Ireland and came up with the recipe for Ambrosia Creamed Rice.
She started off as a geography teacher before working in planning, but launched Brambleberry Jams after waving her youngest child off to nursery.
Now she has three Great Taste Awards under her belt and is busy preparing to sell her home-made jams, chutneys and dessert sauces in the Ulster Bank food tent at the Balmoral Show.
Married to Alistair McIlhagger (44), Alice is helped in her gardening, foraging and cooking at her Ballinderry Lower home by her children Laura (10) and Henry (7) — just as she once helped her grannies as a child.
“My grannies always had vegetable patches and fruit trees and I feel I grew up knowing about growing fruit and veg, preserving them, cooking them and eating them,” she says.
“I helped my Greek grandmother Dimoglou who always made jam — and her husband used to be the manager of Dobson’s dairies which became Dale Farm.
Before the Second World War he made the first recipe for Ambrosia Creamed Rice over in Devon in the 1930s and he came to Belfast during the war and brought the idea of yoghurt to Northern Ireland.
“I always cooked — I grew up with an Aga in the house. I was always cooking things and freezing things and developing my own recipes.”
Alice took redundancy from the private planning practice where she worked to look after the children when she was pregnant with her first child.
“When the youngest started nursery, I started the business officially that summer but I had always cooked at home. Now I was able to start selling the food,” Alice says.
“I started selling at school and church craft fairs, selling jam and home-made bread and meringues. I started with strawberry jam because I live next to a strawberry farm and I made damson jam and chutney using produce from my own garden.
“It’s not a particularly big garden, but it’s full of fruit and vegetables, including damsons, apples, pears and plums.”
“I work with Maghaberry Community Gardens. We grow vegetables there as well, so if I cook something with their veg I can sell it and give them the funds which is nice,” she says.
Meanwhile, Alice also forages for damsons and blackberries in the wild hedgerows near Lough Neagh.
It was relatively painless converting her home kitchen into a business base, she admits.
“I am very lucky with the layout of the house. The Lisburn Environmental Health officer was out three months before I sold anything to make sure I had the right number of sinks and things like that. But I always had two cookers, two fridges, two freezers — that is how I was able to have so much equipment and space. Everything is cooked on the Aga.
“I’ve had a lot of help from the Lisburn Enterprise Organisation (LEO) and Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council’s business team have helped me a lot, by putting me through various programmes. For example the Inspire Programme helped me to get a proper business name, logo and business car, and then a website, and then there was an Evolve Programme on social media training.”
One of the first customers was Cafe Vic-Ryn in Lisburn, while Studio Souk in Belfast also takes Alice’s products under the Bite to Savour brand.
But Alice says a surprising amount of commercial business has come through Facebook and Twitter.
“You will get people ringing up and wanting 20 jars of jams, from young people wanting gifts to old ladies to shops and cafes. For the Year of Food and Drink last year, there were a lot of people hosting artisan events and they would buy a batch of jam linked to the events.”
She also offers jams in 100g jars — the perfect size for tourists to bring home on their flights.
Alice has won three Great Taste Awards for her dessert sauces — sea-salted caramel, melted chocolate sauce and coffee caramel sauce. Her raspberry and plum jam was also a finalist in the Irish Food Awards in 2016.
Even other artisan producers recognise the quality — the sea-salted caramel sauce is used to flavour artisan ice creams made by Draynes Farm in Lisburn and Glastry Farm in Kircubbin.
“I’m not about volume — I’m about flavour,” she says. “Home-made jam should be half fruit, half sugar, with nothing else in it. It has a better texture and flavour. I make everything in small batches and it takes me ages to do.
“At the minute I am boiling oranges very slowly which won’t be put into jam until 10 o’clock tonight — I’m making rhubarb and orange jam.”