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Local fruit in a jar is just as special

By From page A6 | August 08, 2012

Do you buy jams, jellies and preserves that come from area farms?

With so much fruit now in season, some growers do make these and sell under their own labels. Here in Davis, the best sources are the Davis Farmers Market, where several vendors have offerings, and the Davis Food Co-Op, which has a surprisingly large array of jam (let’s use that one word to embrace jelly and preserves) from the region.

Taste is a driving factor. Provenance can matter too. What sprays, fumigants and other treatments have been applied to the fruit? A local producer can be asked, but good luck with ferreting out that information from big commercial processors and distributors, some of whom are overseas.

A friend sparked this column. When I dropped by, she was elbow deep in making apricot jam, with a bit of jalapeno, for the retail market (not in this area). She asks about $8 for a small jar, which is three to 10 times more expensive, per ounce, than commercial jam.

“Do you know how much profit there is in this?” she asked. “About a dollar, maybe a little more, per jar.” She rattled off labor costs, ingredients, jars, tops, labels, transportation, selling and more. For small-batch local producers, it’s often a labor of love, even with fruit from one’s orchard.

I think I know where the disconnect sets in for shoppers: price versus delight.

At the Davis Farmers Market I sampled lemon marmalade from Glashoff Farms in Fairfield. I’ve made Meyer lemon marmalade in the past, and people raved about it, but mine paled beside the flavor of this. Expensive? Eight dollars for 8.5 ounces. It would be perfect in an appetizer—perhaps this marmalade matched with goat cheese on a cracker, let’s say, or a leaf of endive.

“That lemon marmalade is perfect,” said Lacey Glashoff. “It’s true to the flavors.” Hey, my right hand is raised in agreement.

At the other end of the cost spectrum, Nugget had a special on 32 oz. jars of Mary Ellen’s strawberry jam not long ago. It was less than three dollars. Mary Ellen’s, out of Chico, is a subsidiary of Smucker’s, the largest jam producer in the U.S. (A hundred years ago, a half gallon of Smucker’s, delivered by the Mennonite founders in their area, cost 25 cents. In its earliest days, Smucker’s was an exemplar of buying local.)

Do the math. The lemon marmalade cost 10 times as much, per ounce. No, the local producer isn’t trying to rip you off. It’s the economy of scale. Remember what my friend said about profit for small-time, local producers.

If the budget is tight in your household, or teens are the big users of jam, there’s a strong case to be made for the products from agribusiness, such as Mary Ellen’s. At the Grocery Outlet, I found an attractive jar of Danish Choice Raspberry Preserve, 24 oz., for $2.59. It’s made in Poland for a Danish corporation.

I also dropped by the Dollar Tree, where I found 12-oz. jars of peach (China) and strawberry (Egypt) preserves for just a dollar.

Typically you’ll find less fruit and more sugar in the cheaper commercial varieties. At times you’ll see high fructose corn syrup instead of sugar on the label, but jam is so fundamental, none of these products had more than the basics and perhaps a single preservative, such as potassium sorbate.

One would buy local jam for the same fundamental reason one buys local heirloom tomatoes. We enjoy them, fresh equals superior flavor, and heirlooms offer some unique tastes.

Local jam makers do offer some exotic combinations. The D. Madison and Daughters label at the Davis Farmers Market strikes me as the handsomest local label, which makes it highly suitable for gifts. The exotic flavors are intriguing too, which plays to that delight factor. Apricot with saffron, a jam of black and blue berries, or a bergamot marmalade, are not your everyday tastes.

I used Glashoff and Mary Ellen’s to illustrate the greatest price contrast, but often the contrast isn’t that great.

Marion Bogdanich of SunBest Orchards has an array of chutneys, jams, and salsas at the market, which are in the same price range as the “simply fruit” varieties of commercial jam that are so popular in the supermarket. D&K Ranch from Biggs specializes in blackberries. Their jam, at $6.50 for 12 oz., ranks as a “must try” for blackberry lovers with an eye on cost.

You can get hooked on this local stuff.

I used to make four different varieties of jam from fruit that grew in my yard. If you put up enough in the pantry, it becomes the standard, as it did for our family. Commercial jam is like the year-round red tomatoes in the supermarkets from far afield, which pales against local tomatoes this time of year. The good thing is that jam has that bright flavor 12 months of the year.

I focused on cost because I think that’s a factor for some. Right now I have a jar of local apricot jam in my refrigerator, and I use it on the toast I make for breakfast probably twice a week. The jam will last a few months. But let’s look at another contrast.

For school every day, my suburban mother slathered two pieces of Pepperidge Farm white bread with Skippy’s Smooth Peanut Butter and Welch’s Concord Grape Jelly. I took it to school in a small brown bag. It was sweet, it was okay.

Glashoff Farms was the only vendor at the market openly offering samples, so I just had to try their Concord grape jelly. It had zero resemblance to the sugary Welch’s. It was finely granular on the tongue, with a true grape taste, unlikely any Concord grape jelly I ever ate.

If you travel to New England, say, or Oregon, and stop at a farm stand in a vacation frame of mind, you might well scoop up a jar or two of local jam. Bring that attitude to Davis. For an every-day shopping, swing by the Davis Food Co-Op, which has a lot of choices. You don’t have to be a member.

— Dan Kennedy, a Davis resident, has a long history with the bounty of gardens and small farms. Reach him at [email protected]

Dan Kennedy

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