Polstead: Mrs Bennett gets down to business in the kitchen

MOTHER-of-three Keeley Bennett, of Polstead, near Stoke-by-Nayland, had a high-powered career in London and, for a hobby, made pickles and chutneys. After giving up her job for a more family-friendly life in Suffolk, she decided to put her culinary skills to good use and set up her own business, Mrs Bennetts. SARAH CHAMBERS dropped in on her.

KEELEY Bennett’s kitchen is clear, light and uncluttered.

A pot of one of her concoctions sits on the hob. Although she has a burgeoning new business, Mrs Bennetts Pickles and Chutneys, she doesn’t work when her three children are at home.

She appears serenely organised, which is hardly surprising given her previous high-powered job in London, working as an underwriter for a Lloyd’s syndicate.

While her three young children are out at creche and school, Keeley, 38, beavers away at her business, making her products and, on occasional weekends, going to farmers’ markets to sell them with the help of husband, John, 39, a City lawyer.

She launched the business last year, but has been making pickles and chutneys for years, using recipes handed down over four generations of her family. She has improvised and created recipes to make use of the rich array of produce on her doorstep at Polstead, near Stoke-by-Nayland, a fruit-growing area, with the village famed particularly for its cherries.

The walnuts for her Pear and Walnut Chutney come from her own garden. Because of the rich array of local growers, she sources her ingredients as close to home as she can. Her range also includes onion marmalade, piccalilli, chilli jam, apple and ginger chutney,and spiced apple chutney.

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“I worked in the City for 10 years then I had three children. I decided to expand what I did basically as a hobby,” she said.

She loved the underwriting job, but didn’t particularly enjoy the commute, and there came a point, with three young children, George, eight, Charlie, five, and Imogen, three, when she felt the need to re-assess and create a more family-friendly lifestyle. She kept working in London right up to the point when she had Imogen, and then she didn’t go back from maternity leave.

“Commuting was quite hard work and when Imogen was born it coincided with the time George was going to start school. I think at that time I was leaning to going back to work but I felt we would have to have a nanny to make it work and I just felt my responsibilities as a mother were more dominant.

“It was a combination of things. I always wanted a family, but I think when you are 20 something, your career is more important than anything else.”

By that point, they had relocated to Polstead from Hertfordshire. Keeley’s parents had moved to north Essex, having previously been 15 minutes away, and that prompted the Bennetts to look at moving themselves. They had outgrown their home, so they needed somewhere bigger and they also needed something which was commutable.

“We wanted a house with a garden where we could grow our own vegetables,” she says.

As the children grow older, Keeley has more time to develop the business.

“I’m not the sort of person who can sit around watching daytime television, I guess. I need to do something,” she explains. “I would have been doing something more locally.

“At the moment it’s the perfect match because I can cook and jar things up when they are out at school yet I’m still able to do my motherly things as well.”

The chutney-making is a family tradition, and her piccalilli recipe is her great grandmother’s.

“When my great grandmother was making it, it was a way of preserving the vegetables from the garden,” she says.

Her grandmother made it too, and Keeley grew up with it. When her younger brother, Hugh, opened a delicatessen in Frinton called Wrights of Frinton two or three year ago, he asked her if she would make some for him to sell.

“It sold really well,” she says. “I was just doing it for him, very low key. I did a Christmas chutney for him and thought there’s obviously a market with this sort of thing.

“We pushed the boat out and tried lots of different recipes. Actually I had been making the chilli jam for myself.”

She began to make more products, and asked Justine Paul at Lavenham Farmers’ Market whether she could set up a stall. There weren’t any spaces but, out of the blue, Justine rang to say there was a slot at Assington. Keeley snapped it up.

“She really liked the stall and what we had done and then offered us a bigger spot at Lavenham,” she says.

“It was just manic from there really.”

Keeley now does Lavenham Farmers’ Market once a month. She would like a separate kitchen out of the way of the children where she can make bigger batches, but wants to stay close to home.

“Once you start producing it in a factory you lose the local feel for it. We do it in small quantities so the flavour is maintained,” she says. “People say to me with the piccalilli, it’s a completely different product.”

She adds: “I want to keep it at home if I can. You start moving into commercial premises and you lose that local feel.”

It’s a business which has evolved, rather than being something which she consciously set out to create, she says.

“We were not looking for a business opportunity; it has just grown organically from doing what we do anyway. One of the things we did at home for ourselves was strawberry jam. My children eat it by the bucket-load. We have experimented with different sorts of strawberry jams.”

The jam sold “fantastically well” in the summer but not in the winter, so Keeley stopped doing it to sell.

“The savoury stuff definitely sold a lot better,” she says.

“The first farmers’ market was in July last year. Obviously I’ve been making it for my brother a bit longer. In the last 12 months, we have kind of stepped up the production rather a lot.”

Once their youngest child, Imogen, starts school full-time in September, Keeley is planning to step up production.

At home, Keeley retains strong links with her family’s past. She still has her great grandmother’s preserving pan. Despite its age, she started off making her piccalilli in it.

She is getting the word out about her products, and this year took part in Tastes of Anglia’s Feast East event.

“I don’t want to turn it into a mass-produced product so I have got ambitions for it, and I would love to see it on the supermarket shelves, but if that means compromising how we produce it, I wouldn’t do it.”

The orders are flying in. Having enjoyed a busy run-up to Christmas, the first quarter of the year, she has had to step up production to keep up with demand.

“If you use your imagination with the stuff you have around you, it’s a lot better for the environment. You cut down the food miles and I don’t have to go far to get it,” she says.

“Obviously, my mum is quite please I’m selling her granny’s piccalilli in her other son’s shop.”

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