WILD blueberry, pink peppercorn & thyme vinegar was the recipe that won Francine Lee three stars in the Great Taste Awards 2019.

Not only was three stars a huge achievement, Francine was also in the top 15 to be invited to the Great Taste Golden Fork Awards Dinner 2019 last month.

Francine said: “It is a huge accolade to get for a small producer. The Golden Fork Dinner was great. I was so nervous and knowing that these guys had impeccable palettes, it was nerve wracking.

“It was a really amazing experience, some of the comments just blew me away.”

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But how did Francine end up going from her kitchen in Taunton to this prestigious dinner?

In 2012, Francine’s husband Nick Lee had grown loads of chillies and the pair couldn’t decide what to do with them, so they created The Chillees and sold spicy chilli sauces and preserves.

One year at a show, the pair could see there was clearly a divide between the husband who loved chilli and the wife who enjoyed Francine’s preserves, so they decided to create two businesses – The Chillees and Bumblees.

Francine had always made preserves as a hobby, but eventually she gave up her career making wedding dresses and took over Bumblees full time. She has always made preserves with her mum, who grew up in the war generation and never threw out any food.

Francine added: “Last year, my husband said we needed to find a kitchen unit, so I said if we don’t find somewhere within six months, we just have to make do with the space we have.

“A week later, we came here to look at another unit, but it wasn’t ideal. The owner said he also had one around the corner which was tucked out of the way. And it was basically being used as offices, but it was the right size for what we needed.

“I looked outside and there was a piece of ground, but he told us it came with it and so we went for it.”

The pair are planning on using the outside patch of ground to put all their home-grown vegetables – the green tomatoes, chillies, runner beans and so on.

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Francine said: “If I can get my fruit and veg from local sources then I will.

“It is so important to support the local community. It is so important to me although it is more expensive because I think it makes a difference to the flavour.

“At the moment I really love the Christmas marmalade. I get the chefs perks of the little bits left in the tub. This is a new one for this year and its blood orange, cranberry and Bourbon – it is really nice.

“I don’t believe that jams, marmalades and chutneys are just for one specific thing. Marmalades I use a lot with hot water to make a drink, or lemon marmalade I use under chicken skin to keep it moist. It is not just a breakfast preserve.”

The vinegar that won the Great Taste stars - wild blueberry, pink peppercorn & thyme - can not only be enjoyed as a dressing for salads, a jus with meat, or drizzled over ice cream, but also in sparkling water or even gin.

Francine even worked with a local mixologist (Lloyd Brown, Grey Bear Bar, Bridport) to create cocktails with her preserves, one of which used the award-winning wild blueberry, pink peppercorn & thyme vinegar.

She said: “It goes really well with a couple of local Gin’s; Lilliput Gin, which has a savoury note of olives and thyme to it, so the fruitiness of the blueberries balances the flavours really well, whilst the peppercorns highlight the other botanicals and the thyme enhances the thyme used within the distillation.

“The other Gin is Wicked Wolf’s “1869” Lorna Doone Gin, using Whortleberries (Wild Blueberries), among other botanicals in their distillation for a lovely fruit note to the gin. Either one is delicious and of course local too.”

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The vinegars that Francine makes have a high fruit content are a much better substitute than syrups – as they have less sugar. She loves using hers in sparkling water.

Francine added: “If you put a lot of passion into what you do, then it shows.

“Out of 13,000 entries for the Great Taste Awards, it came down to twenty and I was one of those twenty. I still can’t believe it. It is lovely to have people recognise that what you do is actually good enough.”

To find out more visit www.bumblees.co.uk