WOMEN’S handbags generally contain a peculiar mixture of the indispensable and the inexplicable.
Most will at the very least be home to purse, make-up bag, keys, mobile phone and perhaps perfume. Lurking in the depths may even be forgotten boiled sweets, crumpled tissues and pens without caps.
But in Audrey Grieve’s voluminous leather shoulder bag you’ll find a small jar of something that was once considered more valuable than gold: salt.
And not only salt. You might find an array of different coloured peppercorns and maybe even a bottle or two of smoked olive oil.
Audrey is a walking condiments repository – and she’s not shy about whipping out the containers in public, especially when eating out.
“If I go to a restaurant I always use my own salt, otherwise I might have to use the stuff that gets passed off as table salt,” the 49-year-old explains. “And I wouldn’t want to ruin my food.”
Audrey is particular when it comes to seasoning and not just because she has lived on the Continent where such things are taken far more seriously than here.
For when she says her own salt, she means exactly that.
Looking to make a radical career change, Audrey abandoned life as a pharmaceutical industry high-flyer to launch a business producing a range of smoked foods from her base on North Shields fish quay.
The move initially raised one or two eyebrows. Audrey, who lives in a flat overlooking the Shields ferry landing, is not renowned for her cooking prowess. But while her domestic kitchen skills may be open to question, years of dining at some of Europe’s best restaurants have refined her palate and given her an appreciation of fine cuisine.
It was one such experience at the chic Parisian Chez Pauline bistro that sowed the seed of her current business idea.
“We were talking about food in general and someone mentioned smoked salt. I had never heard of it, but that is where it all started for me. From then on I began to notice just how much it is used in French cooking.
“It really enhances the taste and I became hooked on it. When I got back to the UK I started looking for smoked sea salt, but about the only place I could get it was Fortnum and Mason in London. It was crazy money, however, and nowhere near as good as the French variety.”
It was then the penny dropped and Audrey launched Boulevard Creative Cuisine, purveyors of all things smoked from salt to peppercorns, garlic and recently pure olive oils.
She is tapping into a growth market. Driven by food-related programmes on TV, the economic crisis and numerous food scandals, home cooking is again coming into its own.
Traditional meals are top of the agenda but true foodies, of whom there are an increasing number, are always looking to add a new twist to their recipes.
Granted, salt is hardly new and neither is the process of adding it to food along with oil and exotic spices. But as Audrey points out, it’s much easier to have your smoked garlic or chilli and sea salt or flavoured oils and peppercorns combined in one easy-to-use product.
Audrey was born in Glasgow but has lived in the North East since the age of six. Still unmistakably Scottish, she believes that what she is doing, if not unique in Britain, certainly makes her stand out.
Her competition includes the Essex-based Maldon Salt Company, the Cornish Sea Salt Company and Halen Mon, based on Anglesey. But Boulevard is filling a gourmet gap here in the North East.
Audrey is also carrying on a long tradition of smoked foods being produced around North Shields Fish Quay.
There were 11 smokehouses working flat out in 1883. By 1904 the fishing industry was in its heyday with more than 140 vessels registered to the port of North Shields. But by 1964 that number had dropped to just 22. A ban on landing herring in the late 1970s due to over-fishing was the death knell for the once prosperous smoking industry.
In 1998, Hewison Seafoods took over Henry Horn’s smokehouse ending 115 years of tradition. Now Hewison’s is one of only two remaining smokehouses on the fish quay.
Having lived in the area since 1990, Audrey realised there was a foodie opportunity sitting on her doorstep.
“I spoke to Neville Hewison about it and he thought I was nuts. I said I’d bring some salt along and we could have a go and see what happened.
“I know a lot of the good North East chefs so I asked them what they thought and the feedback helped perfect the range.”
One thing Audrey learnt early on is just how absorbent salt is.
“It didn’t matter how much we cleaned the smokehouse or kept it away from the fish, it still absorbed the smell,” she explains.
It wasn’t the taste she wanted to achieve. So having been taught the smoking rudiments by Neville, she decided to build her own smokery at an industrial unit near her home and launched the salts just over 12 months ago. The smoked and flavoured peppercorns followed at the end of last year and the oils this March.
Where Audrey once wore the latest designer clothes and expensive perfume, and jetted off to glamorous European cities for business meetings from her base in Lisbon, she now spends her days in jeans and hair net, smelling of eau de wood smoke and working in a nondescript lock-up.
But she has no regrets. She initially worked for Glaxo (now GlaxoSmithKline) here in the UK before moving to Dublin to take up the post of marketing manager with a dermatological firm.
Still in Dublin, she joined the Danish-owned Ferring Pharmaceuticals.
“They were running their UK and Ireland bases as one and wanted someone to see if it was viable to have a separate Irish company.
“I said yes, nominated myself for the job of marketing director and got it. They later promoted me to managing director. Then one day I found myself in my office looking through all my business cards wondering if I should file them alphabetically under people’s business or personal names.
“Basically, I was bored, so I went to see my superior and the next thing I knew I was on my way to Lisbon to turn around Ferring’s business there.”
Moves to Madrid and then Helsinki were on the cards but Audrey didn’t fancy the latter and then her mother became unwell. In 2008 she decided it was time to come back to the UK.
“I was lucky that having worked since I was 17 I had the luxury of being able to stand back, reassess my life and get a better idea of what I wanted to do. Should I throw myself back into the corporate world or go off and do something I really cared about?”
Audrey uses beech wood to smoke the salt, peppercorns, dried chilli flakes and garlic. She is thinking of going for a seasonal taste, however, and perhaps using lighter applewood for the spring and summer months.
She uses Dead Sea salt and pure Corsican olive oil, both of which she has found suit her needs best.
“I got all different kinds of sea salt and tried smoking them, but it was the size of the crystals that was important. If they are too small the flavour is too intense and they can’t absorb it properly. The Dead Sea crystals turned out to be just right.”
The range – available from selected delicatessens, online and at food fairs and similar events – has met with consumer approval.
Celebrity chef John Christophe Novelli was also impressed with the salt at last year’s Durham City Food Festival.
But Audrey is thinking big. She’d love the range to be available nationally and hasn’t ruled out selling her concept to the French.
“That would be ironic wouldn’t it?” she says with a laugh. “I like the idea of selling a taste of the North East to the French who gave me the idea in the first place.”
In the meantime she is experimenting with smoking sugar.
“What I’m thinking is that sugar should act the same as salt if you get the right sized granules. It could then be smoked with vanilla pods or raspberries and would be great for baking.
“There’s also dried herbs. I think smoked oregano would be fantastic, especially if you are making a bolognese or pizza.”
With a mischievous smile, she adds: “I keep threatening to change Boulevard’s logo from ‘creative cuisine’ to ‘we smoke anything’… but that might get me the wrong kind of attention!”
Buy the range online at www.boulevardcuisine.co.uk or from The Deli Around the Corner, Tynemouth; Fenwick and Mmm… in the Grainger Market, Newcastle; Park View Kitchen, Whitley Bay; William White’s, North Shields Fish Quay and The Corbridge Larder in Corbridge and Morpeth.