Brambleberry Jams preserves homemade tradition
Alice McIlhagger has plenty of claims to fame, not least that her grandfather invented the recipe for Ambrosia Creamed Rice, but its her own foodie creations that are causing a stir, writes Helen McGurk
Jam-making conjures up images of domestic bliss, Cath Kidston aprons, an Aga with vats of bubbling fruit and sugar held together by a web of pectin strands, the air scented with sweetness and little glass jars waiting to be filled with the delicious condiment.
Alice McIlhagger’s Lower Ballinderry kitchen fulfils the idyll. There’s a red Aga, industrial-sized saucepans, a spirit-boosting aroma of cooking fruit and sterilised pots waiting to be filled with the glorious jams, chutneys and dessert sauces she’s been producing commercially for some six years for her business Brambleberry Jams.
Making jam is a science; it’s all about achieving a balance of pectin, sugar, and acid to produce just the right consistency and flavour. Unsurprisingly the famous physicist and chemist Marie Curie’s loved jam-making.
And, if Alice’s scientific credentials were needed, one need only look to her family tree.
Constantine Damoglou, her Greek grandfather came to England in the 1930s and ending up working as a food scientist in Devon, where he came up with the recipe for Ambrosia Creamed Rice. Her father Dr Anthony Damaglou was a food scientist at Queen’s University Belfast.
‘‘Making jam is a very scientific version of cooking, as is making yeast bread, which I make on my days off work, ’’ said Alice.
But despite the many clever boffins in her family, it was her granny who taught her the nitty gritty of making jam.
‘‘Granny lived in a cottage outside Waringstown with a fantastic garden so I would help her with the vegetable garden, picking the damsons and the blackcurrants and strawberries.
‘‘My mum also made jam. One of my earliest memories is stretching up to the worktop, I must have been about two and a half, and pulling a bowl of what turned out to be strained apple and blackberries all over myself. I was covered from head to toe in purple.’’
It was an early baptism in jam-making and one that would lead to a lifelong passion for preserves through her years working as a secondary school Geography teacher, then latterly as a private planning consultant.
When her two children came along Alice took a career break, but when her son was three and went off to nursery, it gave her a few hours’ free time and she decided to start working again.
‘‘This coincided with my husband bringing home an iPad from work and me joining Facebook - that just changed everything.
‘‘Up until then I had been cooking at home, reading recipe books, writing my own recipe file and then the sudden change of finding the world of Facebook and the fact that you could photograph what your were cooking and what you were growing (because I was growing a lot of the ingredients in the garden) and that you could suddenly then get that out to people, was just a phenomenal change. That was the trigger that made it go from me just making jam for the family to being able to sell it.’’
To try to differentiate her jam products, Alice developed her own range of tantalising flavours, including raspberry and plum, a summer mixed berry, and raspberry and prosecco.
‘‘I had it tested against raspberry and champagne and people preferred prosecco.’’
She also makes a Seville marmalade and has just started making a marmalade incorporating Crosskeys Whiskey, launched by Ireland’s oldest thatched pub, The Crosskeys Inn in Co Antrim.
‘‘In the summer I do a small amount of strawberry jam if I get strawberries from Best’s Farm in Aghalee. Strawberries throughout the winter just don’t make good jam. They need to be small and strong to make good jam, otherwise they are just too watery.’’
Chutneys are also a popular part of the range.
‘‘I do an apple brandy chutney, which is popular all year round, and a Christmas cranberry chutney, which is made with sherry.
‘‘I’ve recently started to do a spiced beetroot relish, which is specially designed to go along with the eels at Lough Neagh - I’ve designed that with them and they use it at functions for putting with canapes.’’
There’s also a sweet chilli sauce which is stocked at Hannan’s Butchers in Moira.
‘‘I only do a few batches throughout the year because of the enormous amount of chillies that you need to chop and boil
‘‘And the one I do coming up to Christmas is a red onion jam, which is just red onions, sugar and vinegar, that goes really thick and sticky and it’s perfect with crisps and dips and wine.’’
Dessert sauces are another big seller.
‘‘It started with the basic butterscotch, then I developed it into the sea salted caramel. I’ve recently started to do a chocolate caramel sauce, which is blending melted dark chocolate through the caramel sauce. I also do a coffee caramel sauce, which is very limited edition, it is only sold through a couple of shops.’’
Her Sea Salted Caramel Sauce, which features in her recipe for sticky toffee pudding on the BBC food website, scooped a prestigious Great Taste Award in 2015 and 2018 and in 2017 it won gold at Blas na hEireann, the Irish food awards.
Supermarket-bought jams are undoubtedly the sickly sweet sisters of homemade jam and Alice believes it is the ‘flavour and quality of the ingredients’’ she uses which makes all the difference.
‘‘I cook all the my recipes for us as a family first, they’ve all been developed because we like them, so I am only going to make something that’s the very best ingredients and has the very strongest flavours.’’
Alice has been a continuous support to the Lisburn & Castlereagh City Council’s 2019 Food & Drink programme and is a huge champion for local produce.
She cooks with the seasons making most of her jams and preserves using ingredients sourced from local Northern Ireland producers, but goes cross-border for her sea salt, which comes from Achill in Co Mayo.
‘‘It’s a nice connection with the south to work with the artisan producers there. I have worked with them for the last five years; they now have a production unit and a tourist shop and we work together; they sell my caramel sauce in their shop and I buy their sea salt.’’
She is currently working with Hillsborough Castle cafe to supply mini jars of jam for their afternoon teas and is part of a group called Lough Neagh Artisans, a collaboration of artisan food and drink producers working together to develop a brand and identify new markets for artisans working within so many miles of the shores of the Lough.
As the upcoming festive season approaches Alice is working hard to produce batches of her festive favourites. Undoubtedly there will be lots of people hoping to find a jar from the Brambleberry Jams range in their stocking on Christmas morning.