By the time you reach John Bartlett’s kitchen, the aromatic smell of spice, sugars, and simmering fruit which greeted you at the front door will have sent your taste buds into overdrive.
From his home in Ardingly, John (known as Bartie) is master of the preserving pan, and creator of 90 different recipes from jams and marmalades to chutneys, mustards and curds. His Bartie’s Sussex Faire range is a familiar sight at food festivals and markets across the county and, from now until Christmas Eve, Bartie is at his busiest.
Surrounded by 12,000 filled jars, plus around 200 Christmas puddings, and baskets of home smoked garlic all ready for the Christmas market, Bartie has come a long way since the day 10 years ago when he started selling plum jam.
“I had brought home a 30 kilo glut of plums from our house in France and decided to make jam and sell a few jars – what started as a hobby gradually took over my life,” says Bartie.
He continued to make preserves at the weekend while holding down his job as a manager of large IT projects for Lloyds. But when the financial crisis deepened in 2009, Bartie was able to take redundancy to concentrate on his new-found passion.
He adapts recipes he has seen in books, or has been given by friends, and uses as much local produce as possible. Fruit is often sourced from a local network of private individuals who have surplus items when in season. Each recipe is made in small batches which preserves the full colour and texture of the fruit or vegetables being used.
His biggest cooking period is from September to October as Bartie aims to get ahead before the packed calendar of farmers’ markets and Christmas food festivals begins. This year he is enjoying cooking in his newly-extended, fully-approved kitchen, with its views across the High Weald and has an extra pair of helping hands now that his wife Jane has given up work to help with the business full time.
Bartie will be bringing the Sussex Faire range to nearly 40 events in the south east between now and the run up to Christmas – even spending his 60th birthday on November 24 dividing himself between four different venues including the Ardingly Winter Fair and the Weald and Downland Christmas Market.
“By Christmas Eve, I am glad to put my feet up but, having said that, working hard is second nature if you’re doing something you enjoy. And this still feels less like a job and more like a pastime.”
In the past decade, he has built up a strong fan base with regular customers seeking him out at shows, and his current top seller “by a country mile” is spiced pineapple chutney. Its piquancy is a perfect partner for cheese, ham and curries.
In the quieter months of January and February, Bartie begins the task of trying out new recipes, and adapting his range to eliminate slower lines. There is one product he won’t be taking off the shelf – a delectable salted caramel curd. A fan recently confessed to Bartie that the curd didn’t make it to the top of the cake as they had eaten the whole thing straight from the jar in one go.
“They said `please don’t stop making this, it’s the best thing I have ever eaten’, so I am happy to oblige.”