Most San Franciscans interested in food find their way to the Saturday-morning Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market. That means the market is very crowded—so crowded that by 10:30 it can be impossible to move from the organic mizuna to the tasting trays of plumcots and Suncrest peaches. Most people arrive with maneuvering strategies. Mine is to go to the Downtown Bakery booth for a doughnut muffin, a pastry that combines the virtues of its named components, and then fight my way around the oval of the market to eat it with an indecent number of tasting spoonfuls of June Taylor's jams and fruit preserves.
I buy preserves wherever I travel, and at home I generally have several kinds open at a time, the levels lowering through the week like an ebbing tide. The Bay Area, with its natural abundance and appreciation of good food, has given rise to two great artisan jam-makers—Albert Katz, a native of Los Angeles who makes fruit preserves in Napa and sells them on the Web (katzandco.com), and Taylor, who lives in Oakland and sells her production in shops and at the Saturday market (her Web site is junetaylorjams.com). Both artisans guard their sources for wild berries and the best citrus and stone fruits. Both insist on making very small batches, to keep flavors pure and intense, and on using minimal assistance, so that they themselves can control the cooking. Both believe in adding only enough sugar and cooking only long enough to preserve the fruit and bring out its inherent qualities. Both are stubborn purists. For reasons I've never fully understood but have learned to respect, both are a little grumpy.
Taylor—a brisk, no-nonsense woman who is laconic until it comes to her jam-making philosophy—is very generous with samples, and her rectangular table at the market is always covered with open jars and little plastic tasting spoons. The colors are gem tones, like the topaz of thick-cut orange marmalade and the garnet of elephant-heart-plum preserves. I usually taste most of the dozen or so marmalades and fourteen or so conserves before deciding that my favorites are, say, Santa Rosa plum and raspberry. I stock up then and there on the morning's best. Those conserves might never be that good again—the blessing and the curse of artisan-made food. (And over years of trying to order fruit preserves from Katz & Co., I have learned to assume that what I want is out of stock.)
Last summer I noticed that Taylor was making unusual and very beautiful whole-fruit preserves with slightly exotic flavorings. I wondered whether the inspiration had come from her native England and whether it would be difficult for me to make something nearly as pretty and good-tasting. The answer was yes to the heritage and no to the difficulty, I learned when I worked up the courage to invite myself to Taylor's production kitchen.
June Taylor wants to reinvigorate the hallowed British tradition of making marmalade and fruit conserves, she told me when I visited late one afternoon at the kitchen she rents in Emeryville, on the Berkeley line. It's a sunny, high-ceilinged place with long cutting boards and tempting ingredients such as chocolate and raisins on the shelves: Taylor shares the kitchen with professional bakers, and uses it in their off-hours. The big sliding door is usually open to the street, ready for someone to drop off a box of fruit.
Taylor finds her fruit in somewhat random ways. She explained, for example, that the jars of blueberry conserves she was filling were the last of 3,000 she had produced in two weeks, the result of an unexpected low price when a farmer lost his previous buyer. Leads often come her way at the Ferry Plaza market, which serves the function medieval markets did in being a place to exchange information as well as goods. A woman who grows several rare varieties of pears saves the fruit of her few trees for Taylor, and provided the Seckel pears that Taylor simmered in an unusual spiced syrup she had found in an English cookbook—it calls for lemon peel, bay leaves, cinnamon, allspice, and cloves, with a final spiking of cassis vinegar.
There was no homemade jam in the pantry of the house in a countrified London suburb where Taylor, whose accent reveals only traces of her birthplace, grew up in the 1960s. But even as a girl she had a strong love for making things by hand. She actually enjoyed home economics, and studied it for seven years before switching to sociology in order to work in social science and education. Weary of the academic life, Taylor traveled on a whim to California, where she met a photographer whom she married. To support herself she first tried baking bread, an activity much in vogue in the northern California of the mid-1980s, in local restaurants. She began cooking marmalades and conserves while she was working as a baker in the celebrated Oakland restaurant Oliveto, and liked it so much that she decided to sell them on her own. The beauty of fresh fruit and the tactile pleasure of preparing it were part of her reason for making jams her business. Another part was a desire to change American notions about British food.
Jams, jellies, and marmalades remain a British heritage: even today the definitive guides to making them are English. Taylor was following the tradition of the English expatriate who searches out fruit and unlined copper pots to boil up a taste of home. Because her own mother had never made preserves, Taylor had few preconceptions; she used her instincts as a cook and her Bay Area-sharpened love of freshness to rethink jam-making. She looked for rare and highly perfumed varieties of the fruits her English forebears used, eschewing anything not traditionally available in England. In old British cookbooks she found inventive and subtle recipes for conserves.
When she began her business, in 1990, Taylor decided to use only organic fruit. She cared about the health of her young son and her potential customers, and about the environment of her adopted country. Her standards also required fresh fruit—a condition that may sound obvious but is surprisingly uncommon among other jam and jelly artisans. They, like industrial producers, use frozen fruit, which allows a year-round production schedule. Frozen fruit supposedly tastes just as good as fresh when cooked into a jelly or a jam. But it can never give the flavor or, especially, the texture that fresh fruit can. Whether or not the fruit was frozen before being cooked need not appear on labels, and so it doesn't—even as a farm's quaint name and organic fruit are trumpeted.
Taylor says that she finds "calming" the work of sorting through crates of fruit and then peeling, stoning, and slicing their contents and simmering them with sugar, lemon peel and juice, and seasonings such as sweet spices and fresh ginger. Working usually with just one assistant, she heats jars on wide aluminum trays in a convection oven (she prefers this method to the usual boiling) before filling them with jams or conserves and sealing them with rubber-ringed lids. Always, she says, she marvels at the beauty of the fruit.
Constant checking is a luxury afforded by single-batch production. She can judge whether the cheesecloth-wrapped spices have steeped long enough. She can make the same mistake she too often does—waiting just a minute too long before removing poached fruit from syrup. Or she can scoop out the fruit just in time.
For her Seckel pears in spiced syrup she trimmed the stems so that the peeled pears would look pretty and even, and packed the pears by hand in beautiful rectangular jars from Italy. Such attention is economically inefficient, and Taylor, who relies on the income to help her family, knows this. She fears that keeping her business so small will not only be time-consuming but keep prices high and restrict her products to an informed elite. But if it grows, she will have to make compromises, and so far she has been unwilling to relinquish control, and with it some of the aesthetic pleasure she derives from her handwork. "When people tell you how to do business," she said to me as she sealed an Italian jar, "they talk in terms of money and quantity." She clamped the lid tight. "They don't talk about beauty, taste, and love of craft."
Apricots are among the cruelest California fruits, because they look perfect and yet so often have no taste. But her conserves, which are made from cooked-down and concentrated fruit, have a far better texture and a fresher flavor than almost any commercial apricot conserves, which are typically made from frozen or dried fruit. And she has developed a way to show off the apricot's symmetrical good looks while subtly amplifying its generally deficient flavor. Apricots in almond syrup, the recipe she kindly showed me how to make, is a delicate yet authoritative way to capture a fleeting early-summer fruit—and much easier than jam.
Have ready five or six wide-mouth sixteen-ounce canning jars, washed and dried along with their lids and rubber sealing rings. Preheat the oven to 250¡ and put the jars into the oven to heat while you cook the syrup and fruit. Wash four pounds of firm, almost-ripe apricots (the only kind available in most supermarkets; try to find organic fruit), and halve and pit them. Set aside.
To make the syrup, combine in a large, heavy pot twelve cups of sugar and eight cups of water. Stir to start dissolving the sugar. Add half a cup of fresh lemon juice and the peel of two oranges (the shape and size of the peel strips don't matter, but try not to include any of the white pith). Bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat and boil for ten minutes. Remove the peel. Cut a round of parchment paper an inch wider than the pot's diameter, using the lid as a guide.
Put the apricots into the boiling syrup and cover them with the parchment paper, so that the fruit remains submerged. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Stir frequently, removing the paper each time, until the mixture comes back to a simmer. At that point the apricots should be tender when pierced with a sharp knife or a skewer but still hold their shape (be sure not to overcook them). Remove them from the heat.
Carefully remove one cup of the poaching syrup and stir in one and a quarter teaspoons of almond extract. (Adding almond extract to apricots is a pastry chef's trick to bring out their flavor; I prefer vanilla.) Use heatproof gloves or tongs to remove one jar from the oven. Working quickly and with one jar at a time, put about a tablespoon of the flavored syrup in the bottom of the hot jar and carefully pack the jar half full of apricots. Add more flavored syrup until it covers the apricots. Continue packing the jar with fruit until it is full, and cover with syrup to within an eighth of an inch of the rim. Screw the lid on tightly. Repeat for each jar, flavoring the syrup a cup at a time as needed. Leave the jars undisturbed until the lids become concave, indicating that a vacuum seal has been achieved—at least two hours.
This poaching and packing method can be adapted to other stone fruits as the season progresses; it is especially successful with peaches and plums. (If the stones cling, poach the fruit whole.) The syrup's flavorings can of course be varied, and here's where you can experiment. The filled jars are almost always very pretty, and careful packing will make them look professional. Search for interesting ingredients, preferably close to home. There's no telling what you might get from a friend or neighbor.