Robbies: All For Pickles And Pickles For All

I have to confess I’m not a fan of pickled onions, but I do love a good sauce and Robbies has “sauces to die for.” 

I first met Josie and Gus Robinson of ‘Robbies Pickles and Preserves’ at last summer’s Athol Valley Market.

“It tastes just like Nana used to make” is praise they hear time and again, and with good reason. 

Robbies pickles and sauces ARE just like Nana made. In fact, many of them are made from the very same recipes and home-grown ingredients that Josie’s own Nana created in her kitchen so long ago.

Josie Robinson of Robbies Pickles and Preserves with her daily green hill view behind.
Josie Robinson of Robbies Pickles and Preserves.

Onions By The Ton

Imagine hand-peeling over a ton of onions in twelve months. Even if you knew every trick in the book you’d still be crying over the onion bucket. But that’s what it takes to produce the 1.4 ton of pickled onions that Robbies Pickles and Preserves is on track to sell this year.

“One lady cried when she tasted our pickled onions because she hadn’t had them since her Mum passed away.”

So, on Monday and Tuesday evenings you’ll find Josie in front of the TV, hanky at the ready, stripping the skins off hundreds of small, hard-to-peel onions. What’s more, the next morning she’ll spend half the day in the kitchen bottling and pickling her most popular product.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, for there’s much more to Robbies than pickled onions.

Home-made and Healthy, Just Like Nana Made

“Everyone has a precious, happy food memory — usually from when they were little.”

Josie’s grandmother Violet was an avid gardener and a wizard in the kitchen. So she has many memories of Nana digging the rich soil in her younger, fitter days. Even when Violet became wheelchair-bound Josie still remembers her stirring that big, old pot of preserves on the kitchen stove.

When Josie began her own garden, she dug out Violet’s old recipes. Those lovely pickles and preserves reminded her of long-ago happy days. And now, Josie realised that she’d inherited her Nana’s knack in the garden and in the kitchen too.

Soon she was feeding her family, then giving gifts to family and friends. Then she started creating her own recipes too.

“Your pickles are so good,” said her friends. “You should start a business.”

So Josie did. And four years later, Robbies Pickles and Preserves is blooming.

Robbies: Organic And Home-grown With Love

Josie grows many of Robbies’ ingredients at home in two tunnel houses out the back. Organic tomatoes, jalapeno, courgettes, beetroot, leeks and more are all flourishing. She’d love to be digging from dawn till dusk in her happy place. 

Outside grow tangles of currant bushes, raspberries, fruit trees and a whole heap of herbs. They’re all heirloom or heritage varieties thriving in Josie’s rich, well-fed soil.

Infographic on Josie's secrets for healthy soil.
Most of the herbs go into my honey herb mustard. I use all garden herbs. Each batch is a little different because it depends on what is happy and healthy at the time I make it.

Josie’s Lo-o-ong Shopping List

But Josie has many more ingredients to source. Because she’s aiming for eventual organic certification, it’s not as easy as popping into the local supermarket.

A typical Robbies shopping list includes:

  • Organic fruit for her jams and plum sauce. 
  • Malt vinegar and onions by the ton, of course. How she’d love to find an affordable organic supply for both of those staples. 
  • Organic cider vinegar 
  • Organic molasses
  • Organic spices — a recent triumph 
  • Liquid smoke … 

Yes, you read that right. The NZ Manuka Egg Company vaporise the manuka smoke from their smoked eggs. Then they bottle it and turn it into an award-winning product.

It adds wonderful flavour to Josie’s Smoked Apricot Barbeque Sauce so she’s glad they don’t let it all go up in smoke.

Market life – A Robbies Family Affair

The Robinson Family at the Robbies Pickles and Preserves stall in Athol.
Josie, Amelia and Gus Robinson at the Athol Valley Market Day last summer.

In market season Josie, Gus and their daughters spend almost every weekend on the road.  Invercargill, Te Anau, Wanaka, Oamaru … the markets mount up into a huge commitment in time and travel.

Luckily most markets are fun, and they’re a great way to get Robbies products out into the world.

There are so many lovely people in the market scene. We love to see them again and again

Josie is quick to say that she simply couldn’t do it on her own.

The whole family helps to set up (and take down) the stall. There’s a heap of heavy boxes to lift at first but very few bottles or jars at the end. Gus and the girls are great at selling too. That gives Josie a chance to nip away for a sanity-saving coffee and to browse the other stalls.

Plant Dreams, Grow Miracles

“There is so much rubbish in our food now and I really believe that’s making us sick. I want to give people old fashioned flavour but also vitamins and minerals and goodness in their food.”

Josie’s goal is easy to say but it’s taken guts and determination from her whole family to get this far. They’ve planted, grown, experimented and survived a mountain of obstacles and challenges.

Now they’ve got clients from all over the South Island lining up for more pickles and sauces. 

That’s because once you’ve tasted the Robbies difference you want to keep on eating like Nana did.

To Josie, that’s a miracle worth preserving.

Bottles of Robbies Sauces from my personal pantry.
Robbies’ sauces go down fast in my household, particularly Nana’s Plum Sauce.

Where To Find Robbies Pickles and Preserves

Once upon a time, you could only buy Robbies Pickles and Preserves at the markets. Nowadays a growing number of local like-minded business stock their products.  

And of course, you can see Josie herself at many markets throughout much of the year or contact her on Robbies’ Facebook Page

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Purple Saffron Flower growing at the Kiwi Saffron farm.
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2 Replies to “Robbies: All For Pickles And Pickles For All”

  1. I enjoyed reading about the relishes, pickled onions, and other homemade goodies. Like you, I’m not a big fan of tart and vinegary foods but I can appreciate Josie’s passion for producing foods and condiments like they were enjoyed by previous generations – without multisyllabic additives.

    I remember my grandparents’ garden – big enough to produce lots of canned goods to last a farm family of seven healthy eaters through the winter. I remember also my grandmother and various daughters in law sweating profusely over the big wood-burning stove in the old farm house as the foods were processed, then carried down the stairs under the trap door in the cellar to spend the coming months in the damp, dark, dirt-floored cellar under the kitchen.

    Good food, yes, but I’m not sure my grandmother would call them the Good Old Days. Automatic washing machines, electric refrigerators, running water, gas stoves, and others all contributed greatly to a more comfortable life for farm wives.

    I love to read these articles. The spirit of James Harriott lives on in Lyn’s writing.

    1. Thanks, Randy. I can just picture that cellar the way you describe it. Yes, life was definitely harder in those days. I remember, some years ago now, an old-timer from the Nokomai Valley (the next valley south of Garston, who lived there when it was still a goldmining town. She told me about her mother’s large garden and how they stored all the produce to keep them going through the winter. But one winter was so cold that all the carrots and potatoes and even the jars of preserved fruit in the store room all froze. Disaster.

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