In the fields of food innovation and sustainability there are lots of startups, small businesses and large organisations all working to solve some of the challenges in our food system. Food waste is one such challenge and one that has received a rather significant amount of attention in the media over the last year or two. It’s fabulous to see such a concerted effort being made to resolve such an important issue.
More often than not, a lot of the big companies or funded startups get the media spotlight, yet there are so many individuals and community groups doing their part to provide solutions too. We love sharing stories of all the people and businesses who are doing their part, and we were delighted when a reader recently got in touch to share her story.
Hazel Griffiths, under her brand Fruit Magpie, makes fruit cheese (think membrillo or quince, but other varieties too) out of surplus fruit. While on the surface this doesn’t sound particularly ground breaking, her story is one of physical struggle, dedication and good fortune. Her story is truly inspiring and shows how true passion can be so powerful that it overcomes what might otherwise be an impossible struggle.
I’ll let Hazel’s words speak for themselves:
I’ve always been fascinated by the world around me. At school I was the weird kid who knew the names of all the trees and loved gardening so it was perfectly natural that I would later study first horticulture (at Kew Gardens) and then landscape architecture. In fact I would probably still be working happily as a Landscape Architect had I not become sick with M.E. back in 1993.
M.E is an extremely debilitating illness with currently no consensus on cause. There was and still is no cure. As I became sicker and had to give up working, both body and brain seemed to revolt against me, sometimes making the smallest tasks a monumental undertaking. On good days I could leave the house for short periods and on bad days I would be unable to leave my bed.
In the year I first became sick, I received a little sapling of a quince tree as a birthday present from my mother and planted it in my Tottenham garden. Actually I’d asked for it as it reminded me of sunny holidays in the Mediterranean.
I loved everything about it: the large soft leaves, the delicate shell-pink flowers and the huge, scented, down-covered fruit which looked completely ridiculous when they first appeared, practically bending the little tree double.
The tree thrived in my warm garden and damp soil, gaining size and fruit each year, and soon I started giving fruit to my friends. The tree kept producing fruit so I gave it to my neighbours, then anyone who would take it. I sold some to a local shop but they only took care of the largest, best fruit and by this stage the tree was yielding over 100kg every year.
I couldn’t bear the idea of the fruit going to waste. As a lifelong environmentalist, I was becoming increasingly aware of the scandal of food waste (of course garden trees do not even feature in the shocking statistics).
A couple of years ago a friend suggested we use some of the fruit to make dulce de membrillo (also known as quince cheese).
I’d had a go at this once before and baulked slightly at the amount of work involved. However she, my flatmate and partner all offered to help so the four of us all pitched in with picking, de-furring, washing, chopping the rock-hard fruit, cooking and endless stirring. It took us all afternoon to make about 2kg of quince cheese and by the end I had firmly resolved I would not be doing it again!
So that would almost certainly have been the end of my story were it not for a chance meeting with Wildes Cheese, who make dairy cheese in Tottenham in North London, very close to where I live.
I was at Alexandra Palace on a farmer’s market day and, on a whim, asked the guy on the Wildes stall (who turned out to be the owner Philip) whether he would be interested in selling some membrillo. He looked dubious, but invited me to bring some. He must have liked it as the next time we met his first question was: “how much can you make?”
Over the next few months I experimented in the kitchen. I found that many people hate to see good food wasted and they were delighted for me to make use of their fruit. In fact word spread so quickly that I soon had almost more surplus fruit than I could handle.
I also found that a number of fruits other than quince make excellent fruit cheese. Some of these can be found in the recipe books and some of them demanded I come up with recipes of my own.
Fortunately I became rather more adept at making the fruit cheese than I was that first afternoon, although I must have made every mistake possible along the way! While there are plenty of courses and recipes for making jam I could find very little information specifically about fruit cheese so there was little alternative but to gain experience the hard way.
In practice this meant a good few burnt pans, burnt flesh (from volcanic eruptions of the molten mixture) and ‘cheese’ which either set to a stiff consistency or didn’t set at all. However my efforts gradually improved to the point where I felt happy with the results.
At that point I decided to take the plunge: in June 2015 I set up Fruit Magpie and (after twenty two years) went back to work.
I am still ill and as I can’t work a full week, the things I need to do often seem daunting, but I am actually rather proud of how far the business has come in its’ first year.
Hazel should be proud of herself. What started as a hobby collecting excess fruit and making fruit cheese for friends and colleagues has become so much more. Hazel moved on to selling at a farmers market in raw blocks and she now finds herself supplying jars of the fruit cheese to delicatessens and has built a loyal following of return customers. Starting a business and getting it to market is a massive achievement, and an even bigger one when you have a serious illness to deal with.
If you’ve never tried or never heard of fruit cheese, let me try and explain. Think of a very firm fruit jelly; mostly smooth in texture and sweet. It’s a wonderful accompaniment to dairy cheese and a firm favourite in our house – especially at Christmas time. Quince also makes a great accompaniment to cold meats, addition to gravy or sauces, glaze for roast or barbecued meat or can be cubed and rolled in sugar as an after-dinner treat.
Hazel’s fruit cheese is currently in the running for an Urban Food Award, run by the Mayor of London, London Food Link and Borough market to reward “good food practices”. If you like the idea of what Hazel is doing to reduce food waste (or if you just like delicious fruit cheese) please vote and show your support. Fruit Magpie is in the ‘Proper Preserves’ category and voting closes on 8th July 2016.
If you’re interested in trying some of Hazel’s fruit cheese for yourself, and you’re based in London, try one of the various suppliers.
Photo credit to Rita Fevereiro for the cheese board