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Thursday, August 23, 2007
We Love Jam!
Earlier this year, I read about a jam made by two guys from an apricot tree in their backyard. It was seriously small-batch -- think 100 jars a year -- and the only way to get it was to sign up for the waiting list. "A waiting list, for jam?" I thought to myself. "That's nuts!" But I figured what the hell, and signed up.
Fast forward to the summer, when I got an email from Eric and Phineas at We Love Jam telling me their apricot jam was almost ready, and I could buy up to four 8-ounce jars. I bought the maximum, and sat back to wait.
When it arrived, it took a few days for me to try it. One morning I nonchalantly asked my jam-loving boyfriend if he'd tried it yet. "It's good," came the reply.
So I was in no way prepared for the unsurpassably delicious, unconscionably good, irresistably perfect taste sensation that hit my tongue when I finally tried it. I swear, I nearly fainted. It tasted like apricots, honey, and gold. It was so smooth, it glided over my tongue like a silk cloth over polished wood. I tossed manners to the wind and started eating it straight from the jar.
As I licked pure happiness off my spoon, I wondered about the guys who made this amazing stuff. I'd already been in touch with them a few times and I liked their sense of humor, hiding jars of jam in the San Francisco main library for people to find. So I decided to interview them and learn more about the operation. What I found out is that they are totally devoted -- to their jam, to small farmers, and to saving the Blenheim apricot. They are also a total hoot.
Who is Eric?
The son of crazy art collectors. My dad is Swiss, from the French region, so I grew up on French cuisine and desserts. My mom is an amazing cook and I grew up helping my mom in the kitchen where she spent lots of time experimenting. Our jam, and the food products we will be offering are all the result of relaxing and having fun in the kitchen.
Who is Phineas?
Former educator, barista, part-time writer, amateur baker. Up until the jam-making started, I always lived in places with a non-functional kitchen. It wasn't until being in a full working kitchen that I started to do anything other than microwave popcorn. Go figure, but I'm pretty good with food. One day it would be nice to open up a small bakery/cafe.
When did you first make your apricot jam?
We met in March of 2002 and took a trip throughout Europe shortly thereafter -- a true test of our relationship! Anyhow, [at] a tiny, deserted restaurant in Grasse, a mind-blowing white peach dessert Eric ordered lingered in our minds. When we returned from Europe, Eric ventured into Phineas' Santa Clara backyard and saw a fruit tree. "What is that?" he asked. "An apricot tree," Phineas responded. "What do you do with the fruit?" Eric asked. "Nothing. My mom eats it -- the rest falls on the ground and rots," Phineas said. "Let's make jam!" said Eric.
So we picked the fruit and took it up to San Francisco and cooked up a batch. The white peach dessert served as our inspiration and the rest is history.
Tell me about the apricots.
We didn't know what variety it was right away but did some research and discovered it was Blenheim -- the most flavorful but most delicate apricot variety. Most of the Silicon Valley area was Blenheim and cherry orchards. Only a few remain and Slow Food USA classifies the Blenheim as endangered. One of the orchards we called told us they ripped up all their trees and planted a more profitable crop. It was then we knew our jam-making wasn't just about making delicious jam, but saving a way of life. We feel passionately about keeping the Blenheim a viable crop and giving these farmers a reason to continue growing it and not selling their land for housing.
When did you start selling the jam?
We had been making this jam for almost five years from the backyard tree. Each year we made around 100 jars and just gave them away. For some crazy reason we decided to send out a press release to two food magazines about the jam being for sale -- just 100 jars for 2007. In November of 2006 we had a voicemail from Food & Wine saying they loved the jam and wanted to write about it. All of a sudden the idea that this was now a business hit us and we had no idea what to think. They had us ship a jar to be photographed. Several phone interviews took place with lots of questions like how we were going to sell it. We told them it would be online. We built the website in a weekend. They asked since we had so few jars if we had a waiting list. We said yes. When the blurb came out in Food & Wine we were simply deluged with requests. Thousands of people emailed us. It took us by complete surprise.
How much time did you spend making jam this year?
This year, between our tree and the fruit from the other orchard, we processed about 7000 pounds of jam. Completely by hand. Washing individual fruit, hand pitting the fruit, using water bath canning. This is a very labor- and time-consuming method. Our priority this year was to make people happy no matter the expense on our end. So far, we have succeeded with this and that has made all the disasters that happened (there were countless) worth it.
What was the hardest thing about jam-making this year?
The sheer stress and labor. We went from making about 100 jars in a few days to making around 6000 -- in three weeks. The fruit doesn't last very long in the refrigerator, so we had to work basically day and night to make the jam. There was a huge sense of urgency.
You also sell a BBQ sauce. Might you expand your food enterprise any further with more products?
We have a whole lineup of products planned, all based on what we have made for years for friends and family. These include not just jams, but our pickles, biscotti and cookies, a taste bud-shattering preserved Meyer lemon Mediterranean rub that makes any chicken dish an instant cult hit. We also want to sell products from very small farms or from farms that maybe just have a few trees. We want to establish relationships with farmers and get excellent quality stuff that normally would never be available. We also want to work with tiny vineyards selling wine. We know one farmer who grows his own grapes and makes only about 7 cases a year. That is what we are looking for -- extremely small production and extremely high quality. And to always have something new available that you can't get anywhere else.
I know there are still a few jars of jam left online, but how do you get on the mailing list for next year?
Anyone who purchased jam from us this year is on the waiting list for life. [Whoever] wants to be on the list just has to email us. It is all chronological, who emailed on what day. And we work down the list like that. There will always be a waiting list and our website will be the only place to buy it. We deeply value the personal connection with our customers through emails and phone calls and that could never be preserved if someone else sold our product. For example, if a customer says they like a certain variety of plum jam, we will find that fruit and make a small batch and put it up for sale. This very close contact with customers and working with them to make them happy is the greatest joy of this venture.
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