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Jenny Dawson: “I want to put to good use the things discarded in our society without reason”

One night – I remember it was absolutely freezing – I decided I would get up at 4am and cycle to New Covent Garden Market at Battersea to have a look. It was amazing: this air hangar bustling with an incredibly diverse group of people from different backgrounds, selling all kinds of fruit and vegetables in huge quantities. As it was winding down, piled up in the waste, I found a pallet with “Kenya” written in big letters on the side. I opened one of the boxes to find mangetout wrapped up like expensive shoes, perfectly edible, all waiting to be thrown. I put masses into my bike basket to take home. We ate so many beans that week.

All the way back home I thought: “There must be something I can do with this.” It wasn’t the waste or the environment so much as the moral factor; these beans had travelled halfway round the world and hadn’t even made it into our shops. I’d been thinking about setting up a sustainable business and that’s when the idea came to me. My mum’s a keen gardener, and every time she had a glut, she made chutney or jam. She’s an artist but she’d often be painting with a chutney on the boil. Chutneys are so simple – it’s just a matter of getting the ratio of fruit or veg, vinegar and sugar right, and then you can really play around with spices.

I was brought up on a farm in Scotland and I’ve always understood how the food chain works and what sustainability looks like. When I was growing up I had a pet Vietnamese pot-bellied pig called Josephine. I thought she was really beautiful. One day my Dad sat me down and said: “Josephine can go to market, have a red dot put on her head, watch her friends get shot, and then be killed. Or we can give her her favourite meal in the orchard, we’ll shoot her, and then turn her into sausages we can enjoy.” We bought a sausage machine and, whenever my friends came over, I’d tell them we were enjoying Josephine for tea!

But when my team and I started selling chutney at London’s Borough Market in 2011, we were careful not to mention that it was made from leftovers, because food waste was a hippy notion, something for bin divers. We wanted to ensure people liked the flavour first and, in tiny writing on the label, there was a clue: “Waste not, want not.” There was also a clue in our brand name: Rubies in the Rubble. When we talked about how it was made, I loved watching people’s faces.

I think the time that made me laugh most was way back at the beginning. It was around 2am on a November night after a late-night chutney session. We were driving through west London in our old white van, with music blasting, after collecting a mass of donated pears from someone’s driveway and we got pulled over by the police. We were so giddy, the police just couldn’t believe we were stone-cold sober, innocently driving a van laden with pears.

Now we have a kitchen on New Spitalfields Market in east London. The market receives 700,000 tonnes of fruit and veg a year and throws away about 200 tonnes a week. Once it’s considered waste we can’t use it but we have a good relationship with the traders. When they can’t sell it, we pay a peanuts rate and take it from them. We’ve started selling to Waitrose so we’ve scaled up to work with farmers who supply to the main supermarkets. They can throw away two tonnes of produce a day if there’s no demand, so getting a massive delivery makes our kitchens crazy. We’re a small team and when you stand side by side all day chopping, you talk a lot. The women who work for us have all lived on low incomes, and hearing their stories is so personal.

I want to put to good use the things that are discarded in our society without reason. Food waste reflects so much of our need for everything to be perfect. But everything, and everyone, is unique and has value.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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