Rachel Saunders and her Blue Chair Fruit Company
Story and photos by Rita Hurault with David Gans
Rachel Saunders was cooking up a batch of strawberry-rose jam when we visited the Oakland kitchen of her Blue Chair Fruit Company last May. As we approached, the aroma of berries brightened the air stirred a memory of the spoonful of strawberry conserve that a fellow art student offered many years ago: When I tried my friend’s concoction, I understood why she’d spent what little money she had on jam-making instead of good paintbrushes. I tasted the essence of sun and fruit—a particular berry grown in a particular place, picked at a peak moment and carefully combined with just the right amounts of sugar and other ingredients.
So here was Saunders bringing all that together again as she presided over six 22-quart pans made of solid copper, bubbling with a mixture of strawberries, lemon juice, and sugar, plus a splash of rosewater, a dash of kirsch, and another of vanilla. One assistant was juicing lemons across the room and another was skimming solids off the bubbling fruit. At one point Saunders determined—using neither a thermometer nor any tool other than a spoon and her finely honed knowledge— that the jam was ready, and the crew began spooning the glistening substance into jars. A few days later, we would buy one of these jars at the Grand Lake Farmers Market and bring it home to join the other Blue Chair jams in our fridge: a strawberry-Meyer lemon marmalade with rose geranium and an Adriatic fig jam.
“My passion is sustainable food,” says Saunders. “I see myself as a link between the public and farmers.”
Rachel Saunders finds her inspiration in local, organic fruit from farms with which she has developed longstanding relationships, such as Blossom Bluff. “I was buying from them ten years ago. I buy their entire Damson plum crop,” she says.
Saunders speaks poetically of the process as starting with the leaves appearing in spring and ending in the jar of jam. “The more present you are through the entire process, the more connected you are to the end result.” But she points out that she’s not going to pick 50 flats of olallieberries, “so having a real connection to the farmers—knowing who does what best . . . being the person that they call when such-and such is at its peak—is the next best thing.”
As she tells her story, it’s clear that Saunders has been working toward this moment her entire life.
“I’ve always been obsessed with cooking—especially desserts—ever since I was very little.” She describes making bread with her mother when she was six, recipes she followed when she was 13, and elaborate dinners she cooked during college in the dormitory kitchen. After college she worked in the front of the house at several food establishments, where she says she “learned by osmosis.”
“I started making jams on a hot plate,” she says. And when jam-making became “an obsession,” as Saunders puts it, she decided to turn the obsession into a profession. “I really wanted to feel that I had mastered jam-making to my own satisfaction before I started [the business]. I’ve thrown away thousands of jars. I made test batch after test batch after test batch. I made every mistake at least ten times.”
In 2004 she took a business planning class at the Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center in San Francisco and began to sell her jam in hand-labeled jars, first at a cafe she was managing in San Francisco and later at Pizzaiolo in Oakland, where she ran a breakfast counter for several years. Through this “direct market research,” she learned about her customers’ tastes. “I thought people would want standard flavors, but they wanted the unusual flavors: plumcot, tayberry. That’s what was distinguishing what I was doing.”
Recently, Saunders has been expanding the scope of her business, most notably with The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook: Jam, Jelly & Marmalade (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2010), due out in September. Advertised as “the definitive jam book of the 21st century,” the book features more than a hundred recipes, organized by season.
“There are three jam seasons in a year,” Saunders explains: “Winter through early spring; late spring through early summer; and then late summer through fall. And within that there are subgroups that have their own sort of head notes.” Saunders says that the book’s mini-essays on individual fruits and in-depth, illustrated technical section were prompted by the paucity of information available when she was learning to make jam. “A lot of [that information] was erroneous, and a lot of it was like ‘cook it till it reaches 220°.’ That tells you absolutely nothing about what you’re looking for, or what happens if your thermometer is half a degree off.”
Saunders imparts her carefully acquired knowledge in a thorough and comprehensive manner. “If you want to master jam-making, you need to have a complete mastery of technique, and then you have to understand exactly how to bend that to achieve a certain result.
“An ideal fruit for preserving would have a certain amount of acid, a certain amount of bitterness, it would have a really bright flavor, it would be a pretty color, and so on,” Saunders explains. “There are only a few fruits that fall into that; every other fruit is to the right or left, and you have to balance out whatever its deficiencies might be: it’s not sweet enough; it doesn’t have enough flavor, it’s too hard, it’s too soft.
How do you compensate?”
This year, in addition to publishing the book, Saunders has expanded Blue Chair’s website, opened an online store, and begun teaching classes. “It’s not about making Blue Chair flavors,” she notes. “It’s about constructing your own flavors, but with my assistance. [Students] will have access to my pantry, and I’ll help them know how much of things to put in . . . and at the end, there will be a tea party.”
Brown Turkey Fig Jam with Sherry & Fennel
This recipe is adapted from The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook by Rachel Saunders (Andrews McMeel Publishing). The book gives more detailed instructions on testing the jam for doneness as well as on how to sterilize and process the jars.
8–9 eight-ounce canning jars and lids
4 . pounds stemmed brown turkey figs
2 pounds 2 ounces white cane sugar
3 scant teaspoons fennel seeds
2 ounces cream sherry or Marsala
2 ounces strained freshly squeezed lemon juice
Slice 1. pounds of the figs into sixths or, if the figs are very large, into eighths. Combine the slivered figs with the sugar in a large heatproof mixing bowl and let macerate while you proceed with the recipe.
Place the remaining 2. pounds of figs in a stainless-steel kettle wide enough to hold them in a single layer. Add enough cold water to make a .-inch layer in the bottom of the pan. Cover the pan and bring the fruit to a simmer over medium-high heat. Stir, decrease the heat to medium-low, cover again, and cook for 5 minutes. Then, using a potato masher, crush the figs well to release their juices. Stir, cover once more, and cook for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the figs are mushy and translucent, stirring every 5 minutes or so to prevent sticking.
While the figs are cooking, crush the fennel seeds in a mortar or grind them coarsely in a spice grinder. Place the sherry and fennel seeds in a small saucepan and heat them slowly until the sherry just starts to steam. Remove the mixture from the heat, cover, and set aside to steep.
When the whole figs are finished cooking, put them through the finest disk of a food mill and add them to the slivered figs and sugar. Scrape any fruit that does not go through the mill back into the rest of the fruit, breaking up the chunks as you go. Stir well to dissolve the sugar, then add the lemon juice. Transfer the mixture to an 11- or 12-quart copper preserving pan or a wide nonreactive kettle.
Bring the jam to a boil over high heat, stirring a few times with a heatproof rubber spatula. When the jam boils, decrease the heat to a lively simmer, stirring frequently. After 7 minutes of simmering, mash the fruit a little with a potato masher. Continue cooking, stirring very frequently, and lowering the heat slightly if the jam begins to stick.
After 20 minutes of simmering, or when the jam has thickened, strain the seeds from the sherry and add the sherry to the jam. Cook a minute or 2 more and when ready, pour into sterilized jars and process according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Serving suggestion: Try it on turkey sandwiches or with soft cheese and a sprinkling of toasted hazelnuts for dessert.
To find out more about the book, Saunders’ classes, and Blue Chair jams, visit facebook/bluechairfruit. To hear Rachel Saunders speaking live about her work, come to the Eat Real Lit Fest on August 28, 2010.
Rita Hurault and David Gans live in Oakland, where they’ve been shopping at the Grand Lake Farmers Market since its inception. Rita is an artist, teacher, hiker, gardener, cook, and life-long advocate for local, sustainable, and organic foods. David is a musician, radio producer, photographer, natural history buff, and adult-onset food activist.