Flying across the world as a young RAF navigator, never in a million years did Jay Greengrass know the fruitful twist life would take.
Twenty-six- years on and the mum-of-three from Fettercairn has her feet firmly on the ground after a ‘jammy’ career move saw her turn freshly foraged fruit into award-winning marmalades, jams and chutneys as part of her tasty new venture Mearns Marmalades.
From her sweet chilli jam and courgette curry chutney to her cranachan jam and lime and gin marmalade, Jay is on a mouthwatering mission to make people happy through their stomachs.
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I have no formal cooking qualifications as I left University with a BEng in Avionics before working as a management consultant for Accenture for a few years.
While I was working there I got my pilot’s licence in America and at the age of 24, I applied for the RAF and spent a couple of years as a navigator on one of their big passenger aircrafts.
I retired from the RAF after 16 years, picking up an MSc in Advanced Information Systems and a teaching qualification along the way.
What inspired you to launch Mearns Marmalades?
When my kids were little, my husband and I’d incorporate a wee bit of foraging on our family walks to encourage them to go a bit longer and further.
I learned how to make jam and chutney to use up the ingredients we foraged. Every year I make up Christmas hampers for my huge family with homemade cakes and jams and chutneys I’ve made with the kids.
They were received pretty positively, so I started giving them away as gifts to friends. When I couldn’t find a job I could fit around my three kids, I decided to expand the jam-making a bit. Aberdeenshire Council Environmental Health, Trading Standards, Food Standards Scotland, Business Gateway and Opportunity North East all gave me lots of advice.
So I registered as a food business in 2018, tackled all the legislation and started selling at fairs and farmers markets in south Aberdeenshire and north Angus. It’s just me. I do everything and I work from home.
How did you cope as a small business during the coronavirus pandemic?
I’d tentatively started selling through some farmshops – Anna Mitchell at Castleton Farm was especially encouraging but my main business was direct to customers at farmers markets. Then Covid-19 hit.
I assumed Mearns Marmalades was over or very much reduced. That very first week, though, Fiona Smith of Westerton Farmers (the Spud Hut and Farm to Table) contacted me to ask if she could help me out, and would I like to sell my preserves through the Spud Hut?
Ailsa van Rooyen of Sillyflatt Farm Shop contacted me shortly afterwards to ask whether I’d consider selling my preserves at her new farmshop. They were angels!
I now sell through 11 farmshops and cornershops, from Ellon to Broughty Ferry, but mostly here in the Mearns.
Do you work closely with other small business?
Gannets in Laurencekirk use my chutneys as ingredients in their bistro, which is a huge honour for me.
I love chatting to Aaron and Kirsty Neave about all things food, they give me great ideas for tweaking recipes, for example I’m following their strong lead of showing how tasty gluten-free goodies can be and have started making my piccalilli gluten-free.
Fiona (Farm to Table) taught me how to pull up onions and beetroot from her field, and I use those and their courgettes in my chutneys.
Last week Graeme and Lisa at Charleton Farm cut me rhubarb while I waited; it was home and steeping in sugar within 2 hours, and back on their shelves as rhubarb and ginger jam three days later.
Where do the ingredients used in your preserves come from?
I chose the name of my business carefully, because I knew that at the very heart of my preserves is the unbeatable produce grown here in the Mearns.
I’m right between two fantastic berry fruit-farms (Castleton and Charleton); I’ve got the brilliant Fettercairn distillery at the end of the road; there’s Westerton Farmers, Sillyflatt and What’s For Tea Tonight farmshops all within a few miles.
Mearns Chilli Farm are now supplying me with chillies for my best-seller Chilli Chilli Bang Bang. OK, I have to get my citrus from overseas, but as far as I possibly can, I buy local and I buy in season.
What are your most popular products?
My very best seller is probably chilli chilli bang bang, a sweet chilli jam.
The red onion chutney is also popular and my best-selling marmalade is Fettery orange.
For that marmalade I use the 12-year-old single malt from Fettercairn Distillery because it’s my favourite whisky.
The ones containing alcohol are also popular such as Mother’s Ruin which is lime and gin.
And my best-selling jams are the ones using the local berries.
Have you won any awards for your products?
I entered a few marmalades at the Dalemain World Marmalade Awards last year and this year, and all seven entries won silver and bronze medals (5 silver; 2 bronze) which was amazing and very overwhelming.
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced?
The legislation as my preserves need to be just as safe and hygienically-made as the big business preserves you buy in the supermarket.
I need to comply with the same legislation governing traceability, labelling, etc so the administration at the start was almost overwhelming. It does change, so I need to keep on top of it all.
Have you got any plans to expand?
I’ve got no plans to expand. I’m a perfectionist and quality can suffer as you scale up. I slice my marmalade shred by hand and it takes hours but the texture and look and taste can’t be replicated by machine-shredded.
It’s important to me that every single berry has been checked by hand as it really makes a difference to the texture of gooseberry and blueberry jams.
What is the best bit about your job?
Easy! The people I meet. I love that in many cases my suppliers also stock my preserves. I’m so lucky that the people running the businesses I buy from and sell to are such a friendly, encouraging, supportive (and funny) crowd.
They freely share their knowledge and passion for food. Chatting with them when I deliver or pick up ingredients is easily the very best bit of the job.
Well, except when I’m feeding people my preserves and they like them then that’s the best bit of the job. I’m just a feeder at heart.