Wild Side Preserves
Words and images by Helena Lightbody
When you ask someone how the idea for their business came about, you don't expect the sort of answer that Helen Tidy of Wild Side Preserves gives.
The twofold explanation is that first, she and her husband Andy needed to find a really good present for a friend, and second, she tripped and fell badly onto a railway sleeper in her garden about two years ago. Not the most obvious of responses, but with a bit of explanation it becomes clear how these two catalysts have provided the foundation for Helen's flourishing business.
Firstly, the present they decided on for their friend was a hamper, and Helen didn't want a single item to be shop-bought. Making the jams, chutneys and other items rekindled a love of making preserves and experimenting with flavours, and - just as importantly - it was generally agreed that she was really very good at it! Indeed, my own jam-making attempts have invariably ended up like syrup or rock - the knack for finding the perfect setting point should not be underestimated.
The second reason explains how this rediscovered love of making jams and chutneys became a full-time passion rather than just a hobby. The accident was a bad one, and Helen needed surgery to rebuild the bone structure around her eye. She then had a reaction to the metal and, although this has now been removed, she has been left with chronic pain in her right eye, making reading almost impossible. This has left a huge gap in her life: she has twice now postponed her Master's degree, and the reading time she used to enjoy, sitting in the bows of Wand'ring Bark when she and Andy were cruising, became hours of empty time. But during these stretches of cruising, when she would normally have had her nose in a book, Helen began to notice the abundance of hedgerow produce that was begging to be picked.
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Any boater knows the advantage of being afloat when you spot the best crop of blackberries on the far side of the cut, but most of us miss the fact that so much more of the canal hedgerow is edible. As Helen began to pick and experiment with more crops she became increasingly more interested in what the world of foraging had to offer and, after months of making various jams and chutneys for friends and family, she had the perfect model for a business: Wild Side Preserves, home-made preserves with truly wild ingredients.
Every line produced by Helen contains something wild, so you are getting real hedgerow ingredients as well as a proper home-made preserve. Of course, this raises the question of the volume of produce she is foraging, as Helen puts it: "stripping the hedgerows bare is as wrong as leaving fruit rotting on the trees". Responsible foraging is key, and Helen has permission from the Canal & River Trust to forage on the towpaths (not required for personal consumption, but necessary for selling goods which include foraged ingredients).
As a thank you, there are always two Wild Side charity lines, with 25 percent of their profits donated to support the work of the CRT - at time of writing these are the Apple & Elderflower Jam and the Cherry Plum Chutney, but as everything made at Wild Side is seasonal, this is subject to change.
The seasonal aspect of the business is an important one and it ties in with the sustainable methods Helen uses across her business. Foraging means using what is available in a local area, and according to the seasons, which reduces waste and makes for fresher produce, as the ingredients have not been artificially induced to grow at times of the year when they would naturally struggle.
In line with living and working in a more sustainable fashion Helen also uses up other people's excess of produce, rather than let it go to waste. Even the packaging for the mail orders falls under the sustainability remit, Helen uses recycled shredded paper rather than bubble wrap to send her jars safely through the post. This makes for a beautifully presented mail order package and would be a perfect gift.
When I met up with Helen and Andy aboard Wand'ring Bark, Helen was busy making a batch of damson jam. She kindly gave me a jar, which I promptly forgot, so she even more kindly sent it on. I can, therefore, testify both to the excellence of the jam and to the speedy and well presented mail order service.
Looking forward to the new year ahead, Helen has a few aims for the further development of Wild Side. You may have seen her and Andy at some of this year's canal festivals, where they have found trade to be mostly pretty great. Interestingly, just as Sarah of the Book Barge said that different books sold well in different parts of the country, Helen said the same about her preserves, at some festivals they were out of chutney by midday, at others the jam was in real demand with the chutney lagging behind. They are a fickle bunch, the canal festival punters, it seems. So armed with more stock and ready to face the unpredictable public, Wild Side will be making more regular appearances at next year's canal festivals.
Another plan for the business development is Wild Side ‘jam sessions'. Think Avon ladies or Tupperware parties, but think better: think jam. Based out of Birmingham, Helen will be offering jam parties, where you can get a group of friends together and learn more about jam-making, as well as try a variety of jams, some with flavours you might never even have heard of. A sideline hobby of Helen's is hedgerow cocktails, alcoholic or non, and she will be serving drinks made from ingredients as wild as those in the jam. Then, of course, if you want to stock your cupboards up, you can order a jar or three of the Wild Side jams and chutneys.
With jam production firing on all cylinders, and with an increase in the number of the lines available on the website, the next year looks set to be a busy one for Helen and Andy, who was diligently stoning kilos of plums when I met them. Luckily, as the foraging needs the towpaths, and the galley on Wand'ring Bark has all that's needed to make a good jam or chutney, I'm sure they'll still fit in plenty of cruising, just as long as they can fit enough jam jars on board!