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Rubies in the Rubble: making preserves from wasted produce

Rubies in the Rubble: making preserves from wasted produce

by Ollie Lloyd 23 August 2018

Ollie Lloyd talks to Alicia Lawson about Rubies in the Rubble – a producer which takes surplus or unwanted fruits and vegetables and turns them into award-winning dips, sauces and chutneys.

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It’s not quite jam-then-cream versus cream-then jam – but as far as food controversies in this country go, it is up there. Do you – should you, rather, pair good cheese with chutney, rather than letting it stand on its own? Should chutney be the preserve of more neutral vehicles like crisps and poppadums? Or is it the perfect complement for the heady aromas and textures of, say, Stilton? Though today’s discussion was, for the main part, a serious discussion about the supply chain, food waste and farming surplus, from the moment chutney was on the table it seemed almost inevitable that it end in this bun fight (or bap fight, or butty brawl depending where you’re from).

It started off sensibly enough. Our guest was Alicia Lawson: director of chutney champions Rubies in the Rubble who make an award-winning range of condiments for shops and delis across the country. Ask them where the fruit and veg in their products comes from, and it’s not hard to see how they got their name. ‘Over a third of all food grown in this country never reaches our plates – that’s 1.3 million tonnes,’ says Alicia, ‘and the majority of that produce is lost a farm level.’ People have been getting hot under the collar for some years now at the amount of waste our supermarkets generate, but in reality, she points out, that figure is relatively small. ‘They will discount it, sell it in staff shops, redistribute it to people in need. It’s the criteria they set and consumer expectations that leads to farm produce being wasted’. That happens in farm sheds, supermarket warehouses – even on the fields themselves.

Hear more about Rubies in the Rubble

Hear what Alicia Lawson had to say about turning waste into wonders on the FoodTalk podcast by clicking here.

This tomato is too small. This apple is too big. This pear is misshapen, too ripe or not ripe enough. Head to a farmer’s market and you’ll find fruit and veg of all shapes and sizes on display; head to your local supermarket, however, and you’ll find more often than not your fresh produce tends to conform to certain ideals. It is into this gap that Rubies in the Rubble have stepped in; working closely with ten or so large farms across the country, collecting their surplus, and whisking it up into half a dozen relishes, ketchups and mayos to be sold at Waitrose, Selfridges, Fortnum & Mason, Whole Foods Market and beyond.

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‘It’s about being responsive – and flexible,’ adds Alice, pointing out that half the problem with the system as it stands is its inflexibility. ‘We create chutneys and ketchups because they have a long shelf life, which enables us to support farmers when they have gluts or produce that doesn’t fit the supermarket aesthetic.’ When Rubies in the Rubble was first established by City-worker-turned-condiment queen Jenny Costa, they were a mobile kitchen on New Spitalfield’s wholesale market. ‘She’d be up at five or six in the morning working with traders, creating recipes in response to what was wasted that day. They sold at Borough Market – the heart of London’s foodie community – and it was a real learning process. It was there we learnt about the scale and extent of food waste and how it works with farms,’ Alice explains.

‘We realised that not only could we have a much more positive impact if we worked with farmers, we could also create a more viable business model, with the potential to scale up in a much bigger way.’ They outsourced their cooking to a family-run kitchen in north Devon and concentrated their efforts on recruiting new farmers and developing new products to deal with various sources of waste. Not all of it is British. There are plenty of more exotic fruits wasted along the supply chain, including bananas (saved by banana ketchup) blueberries (saved by blueberry barbecue sauce), and, most intriguingly, aquafaba: the liquid by-product of the manufacture of hummus, which goes into their you’d-never-guess-it-was-vegan vegan mayonnaise.

‘In an ideal world there wouldn’t be any excess in our supply chain. It would be redistributed or the supermarkets would be more flexible.’ It’s more a source of pain than pleasure for her that at the moment, there is no risk whatsoever of there being too few wasted tomatoes for their spicy tomato relish, or cucumbers for their London Piccalilli. ‘The hope is that as we grow, and public awareness of waste also grows, that we’ll have less and less – that’s why we are creating new types of produce – but at the moment it is just the tip of the iceberg,’ she says sadly.

The banana ketchup is an intriguing product. It sounds – well, kind of odd, but even those who hate bananas have confessed to liking it, so much so it has won a Great Taste Award. Sweet, fruity and spice by turns, it can be used as a standard ketchup as well as a dip or accompaniment to curry or vegetables. ‘Bananas are the most regularly consumed fruit in the UK,’ says Alice. ‘The average person eats around 100 a year’ – so it made sense to pick up the surplus. Likewise with aquafaba: the result of Britain’s abiding and seemingly insatiable appetite for hummus. ‘We’re seeing much more variety. Mayonnaise in particular is a growing area – even overtaking ketchup.’ The chutney market meanwhile continues to blossom, with an ever diverse range of flavours and styles hitting the shelves.

Personally, I am more of the good-cheese-don’t-need-it-bad-cheese-ain’t-worth-it school of chutney eater. Alice, understandably, is keen to persuade me otherwise. ‘Most chutneys are made from puréed tinned fruit and are very sugary – but ours are chunkier and more natural, having been made fresh straight from the farm. You don’t have to have them with cheese, either. Many people have them as dips, or with burgers or eggs.’ The most important fact – a fact to which we can immediately testify, the moment I taste the range – is that they taste delicious; and are making a not insignificant impact on the amount of waste generated by the food supply chain’s demands.

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The FoodTalk Radio Show celebrates the entrepreneurs and artisans working to make the UK's thriving food scene one of the best in the world. Catch a new show every Thursday and find out more by visiting the website.

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