Word of mouth For the Haws, growing fruit was a hobby that quickly got out of hand. Now it's a serious business. By Caroline Stacey. Photograph by Dominick Tyler
With the apple harvest just behind him and Christmas looming, Brian Haw's schedule is being squeezed until the pips squeak. It all started when he retired from the army in 1986. Mr Haw and his wife Pat planted 40 varieties of apple trees in a one-and-a-half acre orchard on a former military playing field in Woolwich, south-east London. A couple of years later, they had more fruit than they could handle. What started as a hobby "grew out of hand".

London's Neal's Yard Dairy persuaded Brian to make cheese with his quinces. This is not a dairy product, but an ancient method of preserving fruit. Firmer and more concentrated, it pre-dates jam, using twice the amount of fruit and half as much sugar.

The quince cheese was so successful that Mr Haw had to start buying the fruit wholesale (48 crates this year). They became famous in discerning circles for the Academy Fruit label, producing chutneys and home-made preserves - even toffee apples. Lemon curd followed, and now the range also extends to a variety of jams, grape jelly and Seville orange marmalade.

Even when they're making jams and jellies the Haws use as little sugar as possible; having been so particular about the source of their fruit they don't want to swamp it with added sweetness, and the type of sugar is critical, too. Cane is usually preferred.

The kitchen at the back of the couple's Docklands townhouse has been converted and given over entirely to the business of making preserves, and they share the work out - though chutney is Pat's preserve: "I'm only allowed to cut up the onions myself," says Brian, who specialises in the marmalade. They both come from families who have grown, harvested and preserved fruit "since time began", says Pat.

As the Haws' passion for preserving has its roots in their interest in the varieties of the fruit itself, their sales tactics reflect this. Although Clarke's, the Kensington food shop, and Neal's Yard Dairy sell Academy Fruit's jam, the couple also spend weekends manning a stall at horticultural fairs. As Brain puts it: "We do it because we are also into the growing aspect." This has brought him into close contact with Brogdale, the national fruit collection, whose apples he promotes, too.

His retirement business might sound as if it grew haphazardly, but Brian insists that "the idea of growing and preserving fruit wasn't just a whim, I mugged up on it". By which he means first studying at agricultural college in Essex, and then becoming a Master of Horticulture - qualifications which must exceed those of most professional jam makers, and account for the exceptional quality that has earned the Haws such a cult following.

For mail order from Neal's Yard Dairy, call 0171-407 1800