It all started seventeen years ago when Maria Whitehead and husband Mark bought her parents’ café in Hawkshead. Theirs is truly a story of grit and determination. Living in a small flat over the café with two young children, Mark was up at 5am every morning to make the little-known Cumbrian bread, Hawkshead Wig. Making this speciality bread is a slow process. It has to rise twice hence the early start but it was worth it as customers came back for its distinct and delicious flavour. It was more than a little ironic when they decided to knock through an old fireplace to make more room and found hidden in an old tin, an original recipe for Wig from the end of the nineteenth century.
Maria explains that as a chef, Mark was passionate about local produce way before it became so on-trend. He soon created the renowned Westmorland Chutney to accompany his Hawkshead Wig. Both the bread with its key ingredient of caraway seeds and the fruit and spices in his chutney were in essence a nod to the exotic fruit and spice trade that used to make its way through Cumbria from the West Coast; a route that carried dried fruits, rum, sugar and fresh spices from the East many years ago.
Served with their Lakeland cheese platters, such was the popularity of Mark’s Westmorland Chutney that he started to make jars of it for customers to buy. In fact, if a Lakeland cheese platter was served, Maria tells me, it became an in-house tradition to place a jar of their infamous chutney by the till as nine times out of ten, a customer would snap it up when paying their bill. I can well believe it too. When I got home I opened the jar of Westmorland Chutney Maria had given me and it was really, really good – a softer chutney, not too sweet and certainly without that tell-tale vinegary taste of the shop-bought variety.
Although beholden to the bank, business was good and the family lived a comfortable life in the flat upstairs. All that was to change dramatically. In 2001, a date etched on the memory of all Cumbrians, the Foot and Mouth epidemic instantly removed their trade in one fail swoop. One day in February their livelihood just simply disappeared.
Standing chatting with Maria in her bright, busy little shop, it’s hard to believe the extensive climb they both have had to make to get their feet back on the business ladder. Hearing Maria describe how both their business and home teetered on the brink of being taken away from them is heart-wrenching. I didn’t live up here then but I remember clearly the extent of the catastrophe on the news at the time. It’s not until now, talking to Maria that I was made truly aware of the extent of the destruction of the epidemic. The news showcased farming communities with hideous images of burning livestock, but not much was said about the peripheral businesses within the county. Tourists were simply told to not visit Cumbria and so the county’s small businesses just could not survive and folded almost overnight.
Yet it was the one Cumbrian connection that saved the Whiteheads. Racking their brains for a way to survive the crisis, Maria and Mark decided that if customers couldn’t physically come to them, then they would just have to send their trade directly to the customer. The answer came in the form of their successful and much revered Westmorland Chutney. They wrote up a business plan, bought a bigger jam pan and thus began their new adventure into the unknown.
Today their diverse range of products from chutneys to jams and gins are all created within a huge barn on the outskirts of Hawkshead. Their mantra is wholesome, natural ingredients with no preservatives or colourings. They roast and grind all spices from fresh each day to ensure that the vibrancy of flavour is retained and bottled immediately.
Each jar is clearly labelled with what the product is, with the brand taking a lesser role at the bottom of the label. The clarity of the product type together with the quality of the contents is what has made Hawkshead Relish a success. But it’s more than just a pretty looking ‘factory’ churning out chutneys. It’s a thoroughly modern family business. Maria describes how her children now manage certain elements of it from her daughter Abbie working in the shop to Izzy being the driving force behind their social media and marketing. Aside from physical family, Maria describes how they feel that all their employees are family; they have four couples working for them which enhances the big family feel.
The Hawkshead Relish Company now produces a whopping 130 different products sold to over 35 countries worldwide. With plans for even more recipes in the New Year including a brand new product called Mudd (salted chocolate spread and a no sugar choc honey – yum!), Maria and Mark Whitehead are unstoppable. Their passion and drive to continue producing what saved their family’s existence all those years ago is an inspiration to all entrepreneurs and start-ups. Despite the huge international appeal for their tasty products, their production will forever remain Cumbrian-based with its flagship, modest little shop in the wonderful little town of Hawkshead.
Visit the Gift Shop at Hawkshead Relish Company, The Square, Hawkshead, LA22 0NZ
T 015394 36614
To purchase online or view a list of stockists visit their website www.hawksheadrelish.com