James and Emma Lambe recently won top awards for their herb and spice infused oils and it marked another highlight in their evolving herb growing enterprise at Castle Aromatics, Upton Bishop in Herefordshire.
The couple first started growing herbs in 1980 and for the past 15 years their main market has been supplying fresh prepared herbs to food manufacturers as an ingredient for ready meals and prepared foods.
“We have built up a moderately successful business,” James explained. “If we hadn’t diversified we would have gone the way of many other farmers and just given up.
“But in any business today you can’t stand still and we were always on the look out for a way to develop the business further.”
The couple believes that one of the key elements of herbs is that their wonderful smell is part of the flavour, but they felt that this was not always being delivered to the customer.
"So we thought how can we bottle this smell, this flavour, this taste? We wanted to capture all this potentially lost value. We came up with the idea of infusing fresh herbs in oil.”
This was not quite as straightforward a process as might be expected, as there can be health dangers if a professional method of infusion is not used.
"We have in-house technical expertise with a full time technical manager who has a lot of experience in the food industry, and we also call upon outside consultants as well.”
Two years ago James and Emma took the decision that they would build a small factory at the farm and equip it with the necessary machinery for the blending processes.
“This was a huge decision as we hadn’t sold a single litre of oil, but we started supplying our existing herb customers with bulk infused oils for salads, dressings and ready meals.”
Emma experiments with the creative side of the herb oils in their purpose built development kitchen, while James uses his skills to take the project forwards. James believes one of the key rules of safe business is not to go into a new product and a new market at the same time.
“We decided not to go into retail bottles immediately because we didn’t have the experience in selling to the retail market.”
However having established their infused oils for the food industry, they have now launched retail bottles to great acclaim. In the UK Great Taste Awards the couple won two gold medals for their fresh infused basil and fresh lime leaf oils and two silver medals for their infused garlic and chilli oils.
James concluded: “We’re a ‘herb house’ if you like. The next phase would be moving into medicinal and botanical extracts from herbs for use in food and drink products. The link is herbs; the other link is freshness. We have built on our existing experience and gradually moved into new markets and new products one step at a time.”