7 Apr 2010

Spreading Ancient Mustard

HEAD down like a bull, I charged through the corridor, clogged with boozy business bods bound for the Cheltenham Festival. Whistle blown, the early train threatened to trap me amid its tipsy human cargo. With fewer than five seconds to spare, I reached the closing door and leapt to the platform at Kemble, landing face to chest with what resembled a healthier Marco Pierre White...
Rather than Hell’s Kitchen’s front man, Guy Tullberg is managing director of Tracklements preserves. As we winded the lanes to his HQ through twee towns of warm Wiltshire stone, he gestured to 22 acres of yellow mustard, sewn in sight of Highgrove. ‘We have a gentlemen’s agreement with the farmer,’ he said. ‘We offered him what he was getting for carrots on the understanding that if the crop failed, he could plough it back, reenergising the soil.’ However, the plant proved prolific. ‘A handful of seeds can yield up to eight tonnes in its second harvest.’
As Tullberg slowed at the gates to the exclusive Whatley Manor, my anticipation grew. Was he going to introduce me to his range of mustards, relishes, jellies and chutneys over brunch at its two Michelin-starred ‘Dining Room’ restaurant, matching chilli jam with chef Martin Burge’s ‘pumpkin cassonade’? Alas not. Instead the car drifted a few metres further, ominously pulling into a former prisoner of war camp turned industrial estate. Opposite Tracklements’ spinach green premises, the last shed squats, converted into a frescoed chapel by long gone Italian inmates.
Entering the factory shop, Tullberg pointed to a portrait of his father, William, founder of the firm 40 years ago. While working in the sausage business he craved an alternative accompaniment to harsh, yellow mustard. Harnessing a coffee grinder, he replicated the 17th century recipe for the English equivalent of France’s grainy ‘Moutarde à l’Ancienne’, mentioned by John Evelyn, a diarist contemporary of Samuel Pepys. From a few jars for personal use, it soon caught on. Tullberg showed me an edition of Evelyn’s ‘Acetaria’. ‘The bright, smooth, hot, stuff is a modern invention,’ he said. ‘What we’re doing isn’t new.’
Gourmet Parenting
Tullberg described his father as the epitome of a foodie, ‘before being a foodie was even fashionable.’ He recalled: ‘We used to pick hop shoots, fry them in butter, then season them with salt. There was always something simmering on the stove.’ Then there were the training days. ‘We would set off at 4:30am for a Michelin starred meal in France.’
Now transplanted into whites contrasting blue plastic slippers, we paused as a shutter clacked open, releasing a dense waft of spices from the warehouse beyond. I spied cigars of cinnamon and trays of cumin, chilli, ginger, fenugreek, coriander and cardamom, which Tullberg senior ‘still roasts on his Aga at home.’ This selection adds ‘light and shade’ to Tracklements’ ‘57 plus products.’
Onwards, we ventured into the mustard room, so acutely pungent that none of the seven makers over the firm’s four decade timeline ‘has ever caught a cold.’ Finished blends mature in blue bowsers, partly to honour Tullberg’s father ‘who mixed the first batches in clean bins!’ These were very definitely handmade products, according to Tullberg. ‘Dad originally used his arms to churn them, although we use paddles now.’ To my amusement, he then grabbed what looked like an oar and plunged it into the quicksand like mixture to demonstrate the ‘Hawaii Five-O manoeuvre.’
Tasting the pure seed, the yellow seemed delicate enough to sprinkle over salad, while the brown was far hotter and bitter, evoking Papaya seeds. According to Evelyn’s recipe, birds eye chilli, peppercorns and all-spice are ground together. This is then blended with a cider vinegar from Aspalls, the oldest family cider business in Britain. ‘But there is a secret ingredient,’ said Tullberg, ‘and that is time. Unlike other producers, we allow our mustard to settle for six days.’ A peek into a bowser of mature mustard showed a less watery consistency than the one which was freshly made. ‘It’s live like honey. Leaving it to rest and integrate is a little like what the Germans call ‘lagering’. The benefit is deeper, more complex flavours.’  
En-route to the boiler room we passed a vat of freshly made horseradish. ‘Our mantra is to try to buy locally first, then regionally, then nationally. We’d love to grow horseradish in the Cotswolds, but as any gardener knows, your spade hits brash almost immediately. Because it has a vertical root, it loves sand. So we buy all we can from an ex-Colman’s grower in Norfolk. He produces just 30 tonnes per year from eight acres, and we take it all, meaning he has total control over price. However, we believe in UK Fair Trade.’
Chef’s Trousers
I met Caroline, who was single handedly tending a row of steaming cauldrons, each of which makes enough relish or chutney to fill up to 180 jars. I wondered why she wore chequered chef’s trousers. ‘Why not?’ reasoned Tullberg, ‘she’s working with expensive spices and the freshest fruits. Our goal is to maintain the ethos of an artisan on a gradually expanding, grander scale. It’s taken four decades to grow from four people to 30.’ Tullberg leaned over caramelising onions from a family farm in Befordshire, then joked, ‘You can tell how much its reduced by the sound it makes. We call the evaporation ‘the angel’s share.’’
At the filling line next door, I was struck by the amount of natural light flooding the factory floor. ‘Environmental health don’t like our windows,’ said Tullberg. ‘But I don’t want my staff to suffer. To satisfy the authorities, we designed sloping lintels which drain more easily when rinsed.’
Despite an abundance of machinery in this room, Tullberg is adamant that he never lets technology dominate his way of thinking. ‘Machines don’t like flexibility, but we do. As well as our core products, we want to be able to make a few hundred jars of damson jelly for Highgrove, for example.’ On the evidence of a 12% rise in retail sales last year, his thinking appears to be working.
My tummy grumbled, signalling that it was time to head up to the boardroom for a lunch of locally cured ham, pork pies and Montgomery Cheddar coated in scoops of Tracklements’ finest. As I swallowed a spoonful of apricot and ginger chutney, Tullberg showed me jars from the past, each featuring his father’s distinctive handwriting. Labels feature a suggested food match. While these are generally helpful, Tullberg acknowledged that his father’s recommendation for horseradish and dill sauce as being ‘great with starling’ was a faux pas. ‘However, the Spanish love our Cumberland sauce with foie gras.’
‘Our customers, as our staff, tend to be very loyal,’ said Tullberg. ‘The buyer from Fortnum and Mason recently sent me a picture which their archivist had uncovered. It showed a jar of Tracklements in a hamper from 1974.’ But loyalty can mean criticism. ‘People take ownership of our products – we recently received a letter from a long standing lady customer who was adamant that our mint jelly wasn’t minty enough.’
Tullberg believes that exposure gleaned through the likes of the Real Food Festival and Taste London is ‘incredibly useful’ for providing immediate feedback. ‘If someone’s eyes aren’t watering when they taste our horseradish, then we’ve got the recipe wrong.’
Tracklements were also one of the first UK firms to exhibit at the biannual ‘Salone del Gusto’ in Turin, which Tullberg describes as ‘the Birmingham of Italy.’ ‘It’s an enormous space, with ½km long aisles filled with Parmesan. Every producer gets the same, rudimentary trestle table; glamorous banners are forbidden.’ Despite the cynicism of his friends who believed it was impossible to sell British preserves to the Italians, all stock was sold by the end of the three day festival. ‘After paying the hotel, we came away with the equivalent of £5k rolled-up in my father’s sock. The Italians were particularly positive about our piccalilli.’
What of the future? As well as checking on the quantity of mint in the mint jelly, Tullberg is ‘working on a new recipe for tartare sauce’ and keen to continue to gradually expand the business. ‘I’d like to see a line of seven more boilers,’ he said.
I wondered what Tullberg might have done if he hadn’t been born into the family business.
‘I remember a boating holiday in southern France,’ he said, wistfully. ‘I’d tip each lockkeeper with a jar of our mustard. As we went downriver, it became clear that they were phoning eachother because every gate would be open.’ I laughed, then asked him what this has to do with an alternative career. ‘I actually dream of operating a mobile distillery on a barge, meeting people and gathering ingredients to turn into eau de vie. “I’ll be coming back your way in 14 months,” I’d say, then eventually return with their now matured spirit. It would be one of the most ecologically friendly businesses, covering substantial distances. And I’d get the reddest nose from being slightly tipsy. The worst thing that could happen would be to collide with something else at 5mph...’
Tracklements will be at the Real Food Festival (7- 9 May)
Article commissioned by Real Food Festival; first published here