Renowned for its award-winning organic preserves, Huntly Herbs has cemented itself as one of the region’s most successful food producers.
The family-run firm was launched by Fiona and Fraser Wilson in 1999, establishing it as a farm diversification, growing and selling organic herb plants. But since daughter Anna joined the business in 2001, it has evolved to concentrate on preserve-making.
While Huntly Herbs continues to progress with the times – and been forced to diversify over the past 12 months – the team has always prided itself in the fact they produce genuinely handmade products.
We caught with Anna to hear more about the history of Huntly Herbs and what has made it the success story it is today.
So, Anna, tell us about your background in the food industry?
I grew up on the family farm in Gartly and, after going to university in Edinburgh and working in a plant nursery outside Edinburgh, I returned north to join Huntly Herbs.
Growing up on a farm, I was always felt involved in the food industry, but it was an interest in plants and gardening which brought me into Huntly Herbs. The connection between food production methods and the final product which reaches the consumer has always been important – which is one of the reasons we are certified organic.
My mum had recently started the business in 1999 as a farm diversification and at that stage we were a herb nursery, selling a huge range of herb plants. The jams and chutneys were initially intended to tide us over the winter and bring in an income outside the growing season – however, demand for the preserves kept increasing and they gradually took over.
As demand grew, my dad became involved too. My parents were becoming less involved in the day-to-day production side of things over the past five years, and then my mum died in May 2019, leaving my Dad and I running the business.
We’re so sorry to hear that. Do you know what encouraged your mum to initially start Huntly Herbs?
I think my mum started Huntly Herbs partly as a new challenge after my brother and I left home.
Twenty years ago, organics were still seen as a fringe sector and quite a few shoppers who came to our market stall turned away again when they saw that we were organic, as if they wanted nothing to do with that sort of thing. I remember a woman in Inverurie saying her husband would shoot her if she brought anything organic into the house. Thankfully attitudes have changed a lot since then!
We couldn’t agree more! How was the business promoted?
Huntly Herbs began at the same time as farmers’ markets first started in Aberdeenshire so initially, we just attended markets, craft fairs and so on to get ourselves known.
My mum also used to give talks to WRI groups and gardening clubs. We did advertise in local magazines in our early years, and in trade magazines and more recently have used Facebook and Instagram accounts. Up until recently, our main issue has been keeping up with demand, so advertising hasn’t been a top priority.
What exactly is on offer for consumers?
We are one of the very few organic preserve makers in Scotland. We make small-batch jams, chutneys and jellies which up until last year were sold in shops across the country.
Our best sellers are Strathbogie sizzler chutney, which is a traditional dark chutney with a hint of chilli, and raspberry jam, which is loved by almost everyone.
The coronavirus situation forced us to restructure the business and we now sell entirely online through our website. We grow as many of the ingredients as we can here in Gartly (including blackcurrants, brambles, redcurrants, gooseberries, strawberries, rhubarb, courgettes, pumpkins, tomatoes and a selection of herbs) and we also buy in fruit and vegetables from other organic growers.
Who knows what the future may bring once coronavirus is under control, there certainly seems to be increasing demand for our sort of produce.
Who develops the recipes?
We develop the recipes ourselves, some of them are based on traditional recipes and some have been devised by us. We try to grow as many of the ingredients as we can, and also buy in ingredients from other organic producers.
With regards to how we experiment with different flavour combinations and ingredients, it’s down to personal preference and customer demand.
Sometimes a customer will ask for a specific product, sometimes a supplier offers us a new crop and I try to come up with a recipe to suit it – but often a recipe comes from an idea about a combination of flavours I want to try. The possibilities are endless, which is why our product range keeps growing.
What would you recommend people pair your products with?
The chutneys would traditionally be served with cheese or cold meats. We worked with Glen Garioch Distillery to come up with a selection of chutneys to pair with four of their whiskies and four local cheeses for their rare pair tastings – and we have done tastings in I.J. Mellis cheesemongers in the past.
There is such a range of flavours – our dill chutney is quite mild and works really well with soft cheeses or smoked salmon; at the opposite end of the spectrum, our hot lemon relish has a punchy sweet/salt/sour flavour and is great as a grilling sauce for chicken or pork.
What were the ideas behind your branding?
We wanted a brand that looked simultaneously homemade but high-end, which is a tricky balance.
We’re proud of the fact that our preserves genuinely are all handmade and we wanted them to look that way, but we also wanted the jars to look like high quality, organic produce rather than something you might pick up at the village fete.
I think a lot of small businesses try to develop a slick look to make themselves come across as professional – sometimes it looks great, but sometimes it can end up making a hand-produced, artisan product look very corporate and anonymous.
Are you proud of how far the business has come over the years?
I think we still have work to do! We always received a lot of compliments for our packaging and I was very proud when the National Trust buyer said our branding was a perfect fit for them, as that’s exactly what we were aiming for. However, I think we are probably due an update.
As I said, until recently we couldn’t really keep up with demand, so improving the brand was never really something we had to think about.
Have there been any key highlights for you since joining Huntly Herbs?
Winning awards for our products is always nice, among other ones we won the Scotland Food and Drink Award twice for our hot lemon relish and were finalists in the artisan producer category of the 2020 Scottish Rural Awards.
I really enjoyed having a stall at the Royal Highland Show for a couple of years as part of the Grampian contingent as well – it was exhausting but exciting to meet buyers from all over the country.
Our preserves have also been served at Balmoral and to the First Minister but although it sounds cheesy, sometimes the greatest satisfaction is waking up to an email from a random customer who says they haven’t tasted jam like this since their childhood.
Looking ahead, what are your main aims for the business?
It’s so hard to predict what ‘this time next year’ will look like, but I’d like to have thriving online sales and perhaps be growing one or two more of our own crops.
For more information or to place an order, visit www.huntlyherbs.co.uk