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Q&A with Elspeth

Bread & Oyster Magazine interview with Elspeth Biltoft, award-winning Yorkshire jam and preserve maker.

Who has most influenced your cooking, and how did you first get into jam making?

Katie Stewart and in particular her Times Cookery Book first published in 1972. I still have my copy, given as a present in 1974, with a hand-written note on the fly leaf: “good cooking = good health, good health = contentment, contentment = happiness”. Stained, grubby, well thumbed, Katie’s recipes are very reliable and inspiring. I have always loved cooking that guarantees consistency every time – a little boring perhaps, but useful when you are selling food for a living.

I got into jam making when I was looking to establish a home-based business. I discovered self-employment at 38 and love it. I had made preserves since I was 15 years old using some foraged ingredients and had a real passion for it. So that was my natural choice of career.

What is your all time favourite jam and why?

Without doubt, damson. It is in my opinion the perfect fruit for jam making – sharp, dark and fleshy, wonderful when balanced with just the right amount of unrefined cane sugar and slightly under ripe fresh from the orchard. Never try to remove their stones – the fruit should be interfered with as least as possible. Wonderful on freshly baked wholemeal bread with good butter.

The food of love…what would you cook to impress a potential date?

When I was young it would have been all about the food – spending hours in the kitchen creating complicated dishes with mountains of washing up and failing terribly under pressure. Now, it would be the simplest of recipes, bold flavours with ingredients straight from the garden, if possible, and a glass, or two, of special wine and good conversation.

Your top five dinner guests, dead or alive?

My chief loves in life, aside from making preserves, are the natural world, history and literature. So, Samuel Pepys, David Attenborough, Jane Austen, Richard Mabey and Lucy Worsley. Lucy is clever, knowledgeable, mischievous, yet approachable, with an obvious love of life. She would distract and engage all the rest, even if my cooking wasn’t up to standard.

Most memorable meal in film/literature/painting?

Sir Nathaniel Bacon’s ‘Cook Maid with Still Life of Vegetables and Fruit’ – voluptuous in every sense of the word! Not so much a meal as the ingredients.

What is the quickest jam you can make?

Raspberry because the ingredients and preparation are so simple: 454g of fresh raspberries; 311g Golden Granulated Sugar; 6floz freshly squeezed lemon juice. Add the sugar to the raspberries, stirring constantly on a low heat until the sugar is dissolved. Add the lemon juice, turn up the heat and boil fast to setting point.

Your worst kitchen disaster?

At the christening of my third daughter in 1986, we had 35 guests to feed after church, we returned to find the Aga had gone out and the planned roast was barely warm! We had to resort to a selection of sandwiches (the children were happy), christening cake and a few glasses of wine to placate grumpy adults.

What do you eat when you get home from the pub (or similar?)

Spoonfuls of crunchy peanut butter, a cold chicken drumstick or sausage, Medjool dates, nuts and raisins, Nairn Seeded Oatcakes with a slab of Baron Bigod -I’m rather partial to this farmhouse brie. Of course, not all of these at a sitting.

Top jam making tip?

Buy a refractometer to measure the percentage of sugar in your jam. You test your jam towards the end of cooking and record the result. When the jam is cold, if the set is too slack or too set, next time, cook a degree more or less than your test result. After a little practice, you will make jam to the exact consistency you love every time.

What would your final meal be?

Antipasti, followed by a selection of the most delicious and interesting salads. I love aubergines, artichokes, fennel, warm home-grown tomatoes, squash, spinach, lentils, chick peas and quinoa. Salad leaves and freshly picked herbs straight from the garden are more delicious than anything you can buy. And sweet indulgence – summer pudding made of fresh strawberries, raspberries, blackcurrants and redcurrants if possible, with double cream. Finally, a Monmouth Coffee cappuccino – heaven.

What is your secret talent, in or out of the kitchen?

This is a talent I would like to have, and hopefully will as the plan is formulating in my mind. To create and manage a wild flower meadow in the field below my house, which would create habitat for bumblebees, other pollinators, butterflies, birds and small animals such as the hedgehog. Then when this is established, invite our local primary schools and businesses to visit. How wonderful to replicate this idea all over Yorkshire and beyond.

What did you eat for breakfast today?

Two poached eggs from my Pekin Bantams and a couple slices of my own spelt loaf made from organic stoneground, whole-wheat flour. I have made my own bread all my adult life and almost single handedly kept the UK egg industry afloat! Occasionally, I will calculate the number of eggs I have eaten since the age of ten – rather worrying. I also drink green tea at breakfast. At the moment, I am enjoying organic green Sencha from The Green Field Estate Company.