**The Observer Food Monthly hailed Justine Cather's confectionary company as the purveyor of "the world's best fudge". iLoveMyGrub talks to the woman behind the success of Burnt Sugar and her latest move to source sugar from Fairtrade suppliers in West Kenya.**
Justine Cather partly has her own mother to thank for the inspiration behind Burnt Sugar. The company, which now supplies Waitrose, Harvey Nichols, House of Fraser and Lakeland, started off with a home-run production base. Having seen the locals and tourists lap up the fudge sweets that her mother made every year, Justine realised that no-one else was selling premium fudge on a national scale and started to combine her mother's traditional fudge recipes with eye-catching packaging to tempt potential buyers.
Her approach worked and Waitrose soon showed an interest after Burnt Sugar began selling its fudge range at London's Borough Market. Harvey Nichols began stocking the range soon after, and when Lakeland announce an interest, Justine knew that it was time to up sticks and move the production base out of her mother's kitchen so the company could increase their production.
Although the size of the company began to change, Justine has always been adamant that the quality of Burnt Sugar's fudge should never be compromised. "We've always used really good ingredients so we don't skimp on quality at all even though it's more expensive, " she says. "We've always used clotted cream and we will use exactly what the recipes needs - we won't try to reduce the expensive ingredient in it."
Justine's fudge range relies on sugar as its main ingredient, and it was firstly through talking to her customers that Fairtrade began to emerge as a real consideration for the company. "We had thought about organic in the past but we weren't sure whether to go organic or Fairtrade because we knew that that was important to our customers too. We did talk to our customers at Borough Market and we've run focus groups with our customers. They all said that Fairtrade was more important than organic which was interesting as we weren't sure which way they were going to go."
The feedback from customers resonated with Justine too - having worked for Oxfam in the past she was aware of the real value in using Fairtrade produce, and began making steps to source a sugar producer that could work with Burnt Sugar. Having contacted Fairtrade to start off her research, Justine was put in touch with a Kenyan distributor, based in the UK. He was just in the process of getting Fairtrade certification for a cooperative in West Kenya, and Justine asked if she could go out with him. "He said ‘of course you can come - I would love it and they would love to see customers. They just see the sugar going off and they don't really know what happens to it.'" With that, Justine headed off to West Kenya to meet the producers and spent a week talking to managers, mill owners and staff to find out more about how the sugar was produced and to ensure that their work ethic was a fair one.
"The sugar mill had a fantastic reputation," says Justine. "Their whole belief is that if you treat the farmers well, then you get good sugar and everyone's happy. It had a very nice ethos already so I came away thinking, "I really want to work with them". They were very up for what we're doing and really happy to develop the relationship and they understood that I wanted to be able to talk to the farmers and bring that message back to our customers."
The producers and farmers at the cooperative were genuinely interested to see what Justine had been using their sugar for. "It was great," she says. "I took our fudge and they said ‘Wow - this is what it gets turned into!'" Whilst the trip offered Justine and the farmers to start forming a successful and heartfelt working relationship, the sugar itself had its own positive impact on Justine's product back in the UK.
"The sugar really is lovely - it has enhanced our product," says Justine. Because it's unrefined it doesn't have all these extra treatments like white sugar has. It's strange because it takes away all the flavour when you go through a white refining process and chemicals are also used to achieve the whiteness such as bleaching it. Unrefined sugar hasn't been through any chemical treatment - it retains more of its natural flavour and it's better for you. We seem to have this obsession of everything being really pure and white but actually it's the unhealthiest version and the least flavoursome. Going round the sugar mill you just get this really intense flavour of caramel, which is just fantastic. We used to mix brown and white sugar in our recipes to get the caramel flavour and now we don't need to. We just use the Fairtrade sugar and it gives the same effect but more so - it's got even more of the caramel flavour."
Burnt Sugar now use Fairtrade sugar across their entire range and are in the process of becoming certified as a Fairtrade product. The next time you're hankering after a sweet-toothed fix, just think that dipping your hand into a tub of Burnt Sugar fudge will leave your mouth tasting intensely of caramel because it uses a great tasting natural sugar that is produced from start to finish by people that are genuinely passionate about what they do.
Burnt Sugar is stocked in Waitrose, Harvey Nichols, and Lakeland. For more information, visit: http://www.burntsugar.co.uk/
**Written by:** Helenka Bednar