If you want to know what Jenny Smith’s jams, pickles and sauces taste like, simply meeting this energetic, fun-loving lady could give you a clue before you even lift the lid on her produce.
In the space of five years, Jenny, who is a member of the Select Lincolnshire for Food group, has turned her talents to creating a mouthwatering selection of fresh fruit-packed jams, golden marmalades with a special twist, tasty chutneys and more recently, lively sauces with an extra kick.
At one point Jenny thought jam-making would make a nice little hobby business, but a combination of the fact that everything she has made has been given the big thumbs-up – along with a change in home circumstances – changed all of that.
Today, Jenny’s jars are sought after at farmers’ markets, stocked by Lincolnshire farm shops, spotted on the shelves of Lincolnshire Co-operative stores and sold through Lincoln’s Visitor Information Centre to tourists wanting to take home a true taste of the county.
It seems there’s no stopping Jenny because she simply can’t resist a good challenge. That’s why last year she found herself whipping up some tongue-tingling sauces for one of Lincoln’s newer restaurants, Ribs ‘n’ Bibs.
Jenny, who has enjoyed competition success in the past, also travelled to Scotland to be a judge in the intriguingly-named Jampionships. She had a great time, admits it gave her the perfect excuse to take a break with a difference and is hoping to get involved in this year’s event too.
As we went to visit, Jenny was once more juggling her commitments, by busily preparing pots of her Pink Grapefruit & Cranberry and Thick Cut Orange, ready to wow judges in The World’s Original Marmalade Awards, which take place at Dalemain Mansion and Gardens in Cumbria from February 28th to March 1st.
It’s just as well she’s not fazed by the odd sticky moment. The deadline for entries is February 15th and Jenny also has a mountain of orders to deliver to her regular customers before then.
“I’ve got a good feeling this could be my best year yet,” she said – cheerfully admitting that running your own enterprise often involves a steep learning curve and trying to develop a business, whilst cooking up hundreds of jars of jams and chutneys, creates its own challenges.
Thankfully she is succeeding, which is great news as husband Roger was forced to leave his former job due to ill-health – although being at home means he is surrounded by the delicious smell of home cooking and there’s always a spoonful of the sugary stuff to hand if he fancies a jam and cream scone.
“2014 saw me making bottled sauces for sale for the first time, when Adam Morgan of Ribs n’ Bibs popped to see me and said he wanted to launch a range of sauces at his restaurant in The Strait, and he thought I was the woman to make them because he didn’t have time,” said Jenny.
“He gave me the recipes for Dirty Bird (a hot and spicy sauce) and a second flavour called Brave Pig, but he also asked me to devise a third. He wanted a cherry flavoured, American-style sauce, which we went on to be named Cherished Pig.
“I played around with all three recipes and managed to come up with exactly what he wanted at the second attempt. These were the first barbeque sauces I’d made, but I really enjoyed the challenge.
“If anyone else approached me with a similar project, and I felt it was my kind of thing, I would have a go. It’s nice to make other things, apart from jam, marmalade and chutney,” said Jenny.
“Many people think that I only concentrate on jam-making and, in fact, people visiting me at farmers’ markets tend to catch my attention by calling out Mrs Jam!”
That’s hardly surprising because it is jam that really kickstarted Jenny’s business in the first place.
The trained cook, got herself noticed when she decided to make sandwich cakes to sell at weekend car boot sales at Hemswell. Jenny and Roger, have two daughters, Angel and Elinor, and her idea at the time was simply to earn a bit of extra cash to help put Elinor through university.
However, Jenny hadn’t reckoned on how popular her baking would be and that customers would start asking her to make jam too. The first time Jenny and Elinor went berry-picking, they returned home with five pounds of strawberries and, in addition to making an irresistible pavlova, Jenny rustled up her first jars of jam.
That was in 2009. Since then she has progressed to produce and sell a range of seven different jams, five marmalades and seven chutneys and, of course, the famous Ribs n’ Bibs sauces. It’s anyone’s guess what she will cook up next.
Jenny, who has five brothers, was born in Jamaica but raised in Derby.
“I didn’t actually know what I wanted to do after school, so I did various jobs. I did factory work, was a chambermaid and even a bunny girl,” laughed Jenny.
“It was while I was a chambermaid, working at a large hotel, that I used to pop into the kitchens and watch the chefs at work. I took such an interest in what they were doing, that they suggested I get some formal training under my belt, so I went to study catering at West Notts College in Mansfield.
“I then went to work in a family-run hotel, which is where I actually met Roger. He was a guest and I used to chat to him at the bar. We always joke that he tasted my cooking before we were actually introduced to each other,” said Jenny.
“Our first date was to see Footloose. It was at the time when Queen was in the charts with ‘I Want to Break Free’ and Tina Turner was riding high with ‘We Don’t Need Another Hero’.”
“My best friend and I were going to see the film, but I said Roger had offered to take me. She bet me five pounds that I would choose to go with him and, naturally I lost. The rest is history.”
That was more than 36 years ago. Jenny and Roger then moved to Lincoln with Roger’s job and she started working at a former knitting factory on the city’s Allenby Road Industrial Estate. Her love of working with food meant that she didn’t stay there for long.
Soon afterwards, Jenny found a job as a cook at the former Bailgate Rest Home and she supplemented her earnings by working as a weekend cook at Lincolnshire YMCA.
After this, she became a cook at Ermine House in Lincoln, then moved to set up a team at Willow Court in Cherry Willingham, before leaving to become manager/head chef at Fosse House in Lincoln. The residents loved it when she produced new cakes for them to try!
When Jenny started selling her bakes at Hemswell, it soon became clear that something had to give, because she had quite innocently cooked up a brand new enterprise of her own.
This feature interview was first published in issue 13 of the Lincolnshire Business weekly magazine.