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Jampionships Visit Mackays Jams

A day trip to Mackays Jam Factory in Arbroath gave us a taste of their traditions and a warm welcome from their people.

Mackays Single Farm StrawberryWhen The World Jampionships asked me to pop over to Arbroath and take a tour of the Mackays factory for a blog write up I jumped at the chance. Mackays have been supporting The World Jampionships for the past 2 years and although this is my first year on board, I am – like most Scottish girls – a huge fan. Mackays jam has me wandering down nostalgia lane; when her own homemade jams started to run out my nana chose Mackays. She dolloped the strawberry on scones, fresh from the oven and set out wee dishes of raspberry at teatime on a Saturday so you could spoon it over your fat, golden Goodfellow’s cookies. For my mum it was always a Mackays marmalade – I’d sit and wonder at her when I was wee, as she propped her toast up until it went cold, layered on white, creamy butter that didn’t melt before finishing with a spread of thick cut traditional marmalade. Jam is just one of those wonderful food items that comforts you and makes you smile – and if you live in Scotland the chances are you patriotically eat Mackays.

So there I am, Monday morning at 10am with Claire from Mackays, my tour guide. We’re pressing the studs of our white lab coats together (Claire’s is named – I feel jealous!) and tucking loose hair up into bonny blue hairnets. Notebook and camera at the ready, we set off with Claire giving me a quick history on this famous, Scottish, family-run firm. The Mackays brothers founded the factory in 1938; it was bought over by the Grant family in 1995 who, as you’ll find out during this blog, remain loyal to the authentic methods of production and quality fruits at the heart of the brand.

As we push through the doors and into the factory the first thing that strikes me is the warm, sweet aroma lingering in the air. It’s that wonderful, delicious, homely smell that will remind you of a granny that baked or a neighbour who opened her window when her jeely pan was beelin’. I want someone to cut me a big slice of white bread and smother it in blackcurrant. “We’re in luck,” says Claire, “all the pans are on”. I’m smiling like a wean in summer.

We pass through a group of women who are carefully checking the berries before they go into the pans. I’d been trying hard to picture how a factory could adopt the traditional methods that Mackays is so fiercely proud of but as soon as I start to move amongst the different stages I can see it at work. There are a huge number of people around, carrying out jobs that you and I might do at home if we were making a big batch of jam or marmalade. Think of your kitchen during World Jampionships entry making time and multiply it up.

Claire explained: “We only use Scottish strawberries, raspberries and blackcurrants. In our Single Farm range, all of our berries come from farms in Perthshire and Fife. We’re incredibly lucky to have such great quality fruit on our doorstep and it’s important that we make the most of this.”

All the fruit is weighed by hand. The pectin levels depend on the variety of the fruit and what time of year the berries were picked – it’s a fairly scientific process at this stage but everyone is walking comfortably around their stations adding their particular expertise to the mix.

That sweet smell is getting stronger and as we turn the corner to the pans I’m amazed. I’d been trying to picture what 23 copper pans (factory style) would look like and I can tell you I was way off the mark. Rows of 6, beautiful big domed pans sat bubbling away. There was no apparent source of heat, no flames or stove top. Small thin pipes sat above the pans for the sugar to spill in and a large handle at each pan’s right hand side made tipping these huge cauldron sized pans easier than doing your home batch.

Mackays Jam Being Poured

I’m standing watching as one of the workers at the side of the pans is looking into a kaleidoscope sized tube. He’s checking to see if the jam is properly set – if it is it shouldn’t float. You’ll do this with a teaspoon and cold saucer! I’m impressed that these little tests are still completed by human eye and knowledge and not by a machine. There are men with paddles the size of oars stirring the jam that’s bubbling away and then, a big old tub is wheeled up and the handle is pulled. The piping hot jam is tipped into the tub, steam rising and the smell more intense than even before. I’m desperate to have a go but I’ve no wellies, so I keep quiet!

I had the pleasure of meeting Georgina, who we could call a “jam master”. Georgina’s worked at Mackays for years, so knows what she’s looking for in every jar.

We then moved to the filling lines, to watch the very precise job of getting 340gms (or just a wee bit over!) into a jar. We went to see the main line and the same jam we saw being tipped just 30 minutes before is now filling jar after jar as it rattles down the line. Mackays supply 52 markets worldwide and the jam you eat here in the UK is the same as the jam they eat in Berlin and Tokyo.

We saw the jars being lidded and quality checked. Then the jars come out warm, but not boiling, to be greeted by the staff who pack them ready for labelling. The three ladies I met told me they’ve been with the company for years – “since Carnoustie” is a normal answer.

After a 24 – 48 hour cooling period its round to labelling where they are dressed, in the still fairly new, Mackays branding. Copper lids and labels with white centres and gorgeous hand drawn fruits and copper pans finish the jar. The tiniest bit of tartan illustration completes the quality Scottish product look and feel. And there it is, a jar of Mackays jam as you and I know and love it!

Mackays Jam Being Wrapped

I was most excited to meet Maureen who looks after in-house labelling. Mackays do all their own export labelling which translates the ingredients for those 52 markets I talked about earlier.

Mackays Labels being Turned

We finish in the visitor shop where I’m treated to a few jars to take home – I am writing about jam here but I get some marmalade for my other half or he would never forgive me

I witness lots of friendly chat in the shop between colleagues, which speaks volumes. Maureen in the labelling department had told me proudly that she’s worked in most areas – from office to pans, jars to reception. “I like it here the most.” You get a feeling of people who are proud and happy at their work and who will move effortlessly and without grumble, between roles to play their part in the Mackays story. Claire, my marketing tour guide, was factory bound for her first week in post.

Copper pans, happy workers, local ingredients, quality product. It’s fair to say that 52 markets, 12 million Mackays jars and hours of jam making has not gone to the brand’s head. When you’re spreading your toast with a big dollop of Scottish Strawberry Preserve or Dundee Orange Marmalade you can be happy in the fact that the principles of a family run business remain at the heart of this internationally famous Scottish brand.

Mackays product range included marmalades, preserves, curds, Single Farm preserves and mini gift sets. Drop into their gift shop at the factory in Arbroath or check out your local supermarket shelves.

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