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Scotland's Larder: Anna Wilson of Huntly Herbs

Anna Wilson tells Cat Thomson how family business, Huntly Herbs has expanded and thrived since its humble beginnings.

Published: June 15, 2022

Huntly herbs is a small family business making a wide range of organic preserves, jams, jellies, pickles and chutneys with many of the ingredients homegrown on the farm.

It was founded by husband and wife team Fiona and Fraser Wilson but I'm talking to daughter Anna about being part of this award winning business.

Anna and her brother grew up on the farm near Huntly, neither of their parents came from a farming background but her dad had studied agriculture at SRUC Craibstone.

Anna Wilson Huntly herbs
Huntly Herbs. Photo: Lisa Ferguson

In 1979 with a young family on the horizon, they decided the time was right to follow their dreams and began farming 40 acres at Whitestone.

Anna explains; "I'm the older one, my brother was the one into farming, while I was I really didn't know what I wanted to do."

Diversify

Anna's mum, Fiona was interested in health and nutrition and the environment and as a keen gardener she decided to diversify into growing herbs organically.

She was awarded a grant and built a polytunnel and then began selling herbs initially at Elgin farmers market.

The business thrived and at one stage the grew150 different kinds herbs.

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Anna said, "We was just hit the right time, there weren't a lot of herbs for sale at the time. These days organic is much more mainstream but when we started it seemed like a really weird, off the wall and odd ball thing to do."

University days

After school Anna headed to Edinburgh University to study Politics and Sociology, and was planning to be a parliamentary assistant.

But during her studies she would help out her mum at events. One year they won an award at Keith show for their stall and were presented with a prize by Nick Nairn. Anna laughs, "we thought we had hit the big time."

Anna Wilson Huntly herbs
Huntly Herbs. Photo: Lisa Ferguson

Although Anna loved being a student she missed rural life; " she said, "I had spent the last two years in Huntly desperate to leave the place for dust but ended up feeling like I don't know if I want to live in the city."

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After her studies ended she found a job doing something totally different, she worked for a year at Pentland plants nursery, for Caroline Spray's parents. She wanted to do something practical instead of, "reading books all day."

Home sweet home

She made the decision to return home; "I think my parents were quite astounded when I came back, because I was the one who always wanted to go off and travel the world."

Anna explains the benefits of working in a family business; "It is satisfying, you have a bit more input and you can put all your efforts in and build it."

Working at Pentland Plants was inspirational, and she earned a lot.

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Growing up on the farm, Anna's mum had always cooked traditional hearty meals from scratch like mince tatties, stews and puddings and the family even had a house cow for milk and lot of eggs.

Anna Wilson Huntly herbs
Anna Wilson from Huntly Herbs with her daughter, Roisin Wilson Hislop. Photo: Lisa Ferguson

Her mum also made tasty chutneys using home grown vegetables, and they began making and selling preserves to provide yet another income stream.

The reason was, that they had saturated the market for plants locally and they realised jams and chutneys have a greater shelf life and are easier to transport and post.

In the kitchen

Anna became the main chef and took on the task of standardised her mother's recipes, and then slowly expanded the range.

Her favourite task is coming up with new ideas for preserves, she enjoys playing around with ideas for flavour combinations with a particular herb in mind and will then then experiment, she said, "Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't ."

Sadly Fiona, Anna's mother died in 2019.

She said, "Mum was the heart of the business, but we had all these wholesale orders coming in so my dad and I just kept going, as a distraction."

They now sell to customers direct online, that way, she said "it is easier for me working from home with a toddler."

The business now has three polytunnels where they grow, tomatoes, pumpkins and lots of fruit like gooseberries, blackcurrants, redcurrants and brambles.

Anna Wilson Huntly herbs
Huntly Herbs. Photo: Lisa Ferguson

And there is now a commercial kitchen where all the Huntly herb produce is made, but Anna said, "It is still on quite small scale."

Business advice

In the early days of the business, Anna recalls a piece of (unsolicited) advice which she and her mum were given it was suggested they got rid of the production side of things for the business to really take off.

Anna said, "The whole point of it for us, was that we produce the jams and chutneys ourselves, using our recipes in our kitchen otherwise it's essentially just an exercise in branding."

She explains, "Whenever I have thought about dropping a line there has been some customer who says it's their favourite so I just carry on and make it, which might be a bit inefficient."

Huntly

Anna met her horticulturalist partner in Huntly and they live on the farm.

She describes Huntly as being old fashioned place with a strong community spirit; "I realised having moved back that there are a ridiculous amount of clubs and associations with everyone on the committee of something."

"There is a real feeling that you can make things happen, and a sense that you should do something to change things if you want to."

Anna's daughter Roisin, (2) is the next generation of the family and so far she is keen to help out in the polytunnels.

Anna Wilson Huntly herbs
Anna Wilson from Huntly Herbs with her daughter, Roisin Wilson Hislop. Photo: Lisa Ferguson

Anna adds, "luckily she is also a dab hand peeling onions, you give her one and she is absorbed for a surprising length of time."

Award winning

Over the years Huntly herbs have won quite a few accolades most recently the Hot lemon relish won the Boom awards (Best of Organic Market Awards.)

Anna invented this by accident, she said, "I was trying to make a lemon equivalent of lime pickle and it didn't quite work so I had some ingredients left so I just cooked them all into a chutney and it turned out really much nicer than the pickle did so I ditched the pickle and kept the relish."

It is versatile, and you can use it a a cooking sauce, she said, "It is my favourite, my mum used to bake it in foil with salmon and it is very nice on grilled cheese."

Plums

Anna also makes damson jam using home grown plums; she explains, "We don't get a crop every year so it feels very special when we do and it has a unique strong flavour."

This year for the first time she is growing tomatillos for relish and is also growing camomile, mint and lemon balm, to dry out to make tea. Anna admits, "It is quite nice to be getting back to the herby side of things again."

She has a store room with all her jams and chutneys piled from floor to ceiling, on shelves waiting to be sold, however the chutneys need to mature before they get labelled and sent off to customers all over the UK.

Anna Wilson Huntly herbs
Award winning preserves form Huntly Herbs. Photo: Lisa Ferguson

The most popular products are Raspberry Jam, and chutneys called Strathbogie Sizzler and Blonde Bombshell.

Strathbogie Sizzler has courgette, molasses, garlic and onions; Anna says, "I almost describe it as a ploughman's lunch sort of chutney but with a little chilli."

While the Blonde Bombshell has Black Isle brewery blonde beer, with courgette, ginger and chilli and garlic and she says, "It's slightly sweeter and spicier."

Anna also collaborates with local distiller Glen Garioch whisky to make them an exclusive marmalade which they sell and she also makes a cranberry sauce especially for Barra Bronze's Turkeys in Inverurie.

Organic

She said, "In an ideal world everything we sell would ideally be grown here by us, but sadly we aren't able to grow oranges and lemons."

The ingredients are all organic apart from wild fruits, like rowan berries or sloes which are foraged nearby and go into a hedgerow jelly.

Anna feels it is vitally important to keep those wild flavours alive, "Although it probably is not really economically viable for anyone to make Rowan jelly because it is so fiddly to pick."

Her dad is now 70 years old and claims to be retired, but along with her partner they all muck in to help, she feels working with relatives can be hard, but adds, "If you get on well with your family, which I do you don't need to ask politely about something, it is all straightforward."

Anna Wilson Huntly herbs
Anna Wilson from Huntly Herbs. Photo: Lisa Ferguson

Huntly Herbs


Whitestone,
Huntly
AB54 4SB
Tel: 07769 606114


hello@huntlyherbs.co.uk

huntlyherbs.co.uk

Catriona is based in the Scottish Borders and works as part of the audiovisual team at the Scotsman but she reviews restaurants for Scotland on Sunday and writes for Scotsman Food and Drink in her spare time.

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