June Taylor is the owner (and heart and soul) behind June Taylor Preserves, a small-batch preserves operation she runs out of The Still-Room, her shop and workroom in Berkeley, CA. June started her business 25 years ago with selling just three kinds of marmalade at her local farmers' market. Today she still produces two of those marmalades as well as fruit syrups and butters, candied peel, jams and conserves, and beautiful, delicious concentrated fruit purees called fruit cheese (pictured above).
It was a delight to visit The Still-Room and talk with June about her five essentials for home preserving.
When I stopped by The Still-Room on a dry, sunny winter morning, the air was filled with the scent of citrus and sugar. June and her small staff were making candied fruit peel with the rinds of oranges and bergamot left over from other projects. It had rained the previous week and they were anxious to finish the batch while the conditions were dry.
"Rain is a nightmare for candy making," said June. "The dampness in the air melts the sugar into the candy. We were sitting here with trays and trays of wet candy — not ideal. We do as much confectionary (candied peel) as we do marmalade making now in order to not waste any of the product that comes through here. Our model is to use it all."
While June sells her products commercially in small shops and at farmers' markets, they are still made in small batches of 8 to 10 jars, a similar size to an average homemade batch. She has been teaching and inspiring people to make delicious fruit-dense, low-sugar jams, marmalades, and conserves in her usually sold out Still-Room classes.
"Understanding the basic principles of preserving is essential. What is preserving? Very basically, it's a process of cooking fruit with sugar and acid, concentrating it to the point where the solids outweigh the liquids so that you have a stable food product. But there's obviously more to it than just that."
1. Use the best fresh fruit you can find.
This seems like an obvious one but it might not be, especially for people who aren't in an area as bountiful as we are with fresh fruit. Use fresh fruit and fruit that is grown without use of pesticides and synthetic chemicals. It's essential that people understand that the pesticide and chemical residue will be concentrated when you cook the fruit, especially when making marmalade which uses the peel. One doesn't want to eat that!
If possible, grown your own fruit, but if not then I really encourage everyone to support your local famers market. You're going to get the best possible opportunity to buy tree-ripened fruit or fruit grown with a lot of integrity and care: it's not picked underripe and shipped from some far away place. You'll get the very best quality. I buy fruit from farmers that was picked the day before. That's about as good as you can get unless you forage, or you have friends or you grow your own.
With preserving, the more you can learn about fruit, the better you can understand how to preserve it. So when buying from a farmer, be sure you talk to that farmer. My experience is that most farmers will tell you more than what you want to know! You engage them and it enables you to appreciate the complexity of what it what it takes to grow fruit and what the issue are.
Understanding fruit is the starting point for making any preserve.
2. Be a keen observer.
I'm a believer in the intuitive approach to cooking, in learning by doing. When I'm making preserves, I know by looking, I know by the size of the bubbles, I know by the color, I know by the drag on the spoon — all of those things will tell me when to stop, when I've got what I wanted.
So observe keenly, and question, and taste. It may sound obvious but taste your raw fruit. Especially with marmalade: taste the flesh, taste the peel, taste the flesh and peel together. Describe it to yourself. Write notes. Keep a log because you won't necessarily remember from one year to the next. Taste taste taste!
3. Approach recipes with a critical eye.
Understand that recipes can only be guidelines. This is a huge one in preserve making. Fruit varies day by day, week by week, season by season, year by year. The fruit from the same farmer will be different from two sides of the same tree. It will be different depending on the weather, depending on the stage of ripeness, depending on the season, the region in which it was grown. You're working with nature and nature is variable.
If you standardize, as recipes try to do, ultimately you go down that slippery slope towards an industrial product. If you don't stay close to the fruit and stay true to the fruit, you'll get a standard, industrial product. So you have to know that a recipe can be no more than a parameter and a guideline and be comfortable with that.
I know this is hard for novices. I remember when I was learning bread baking from my friend and I'd say "But how much flour should I put in?" and he'd just shrug his shoulders and say "just enough, just a little more." It was so frustrating. I wanted certainty and he would say touch the dough, feel the dough, smell the dough, taste the dough. Eventually, after doing it enough I was comfortable enough to work this way.
It's the same with preserve making. You adjust according to conditions. There are classic ratios but you can't rely on them. For instance, this year we've had no rain. So what does that mean? The citrus can be way more intense, possibly bitter, drier and I'll have to adjust for that. I adjust virtually every pot I make here. I keep guidelines from previous years, I write notes. I have every batch we ever did written down on little yellow pads.
On bitterness. A year or two ago we had an element of bitterness in the citrus that I loved. We tend to shy away from bitterness in our culture but for a marmalade, bitter is gorgeous. Don't confuse bitter with sour; it's different than sour. With fruit, there's sweetness, there's acid, and there's sour but occasionally there's that element of bitter which makes such a complex preserve, a beautifully complex preserve. Again, if you read the recipes and you follow them dutifully, you're in danger of overriding that subtle bitterness with too much sugar.
4. Invest in a good pot, a very sharp knife and a lovely wooden spoon.
I'm a big fan of the wooden spoon — they're very close to my heart. My spoons came back with me from England years ago and are just being retired bit by bit as they get old. They're wonderful and worn like old stairs. I'll use the same spoon every day and get very attached to it.
It's not necessary to buy fancy copper pots. You don't want aluminum, of course, but you do want a wide heavy-based pot. I've got pots that are semi-retired that I bought from Sears 25 years ago for a few dollars a pot. They work fine. They're not commercial pots but they work just fine for me.
Gadgets aren't necessary. When you watch an Indian woman cook with her hands, a spoon, and a simple little pot it's a lesson in keeping things simple. I believe in that with preserving and not frightening people off with a lot of fancy equipment. With a good knife, a good spoon, a good pot, and a thermometer, everybody can do it.
I like the egalitarian nature of preserving. It's important that it remain accessible to everybody.
5. Have fun, relax, and share the experience.
It's not rocket science. Everyone can make a good jar of jam. Now, it's really hard to make a great jar of jam just like it's real hard to make a great loaf of bread. But it's really easy to make a good loaf, a good jam. It takes dedication, perseverance, patience with one's self and with the ingredients.
Preserving is in an activity that people always did together, in community, so share it! Share it with your friends and family especially your children. Show your children that this is something that you value, that it's something they can be a part of. It's a simple, humble, satisfying experience for both the creator and the recipient. To create something nourishing and good and healthful, and to share it.
And its safe to make preserves! People are so scared sometimes about this. Industry taught us to be scared, taught us to devalue our skills and so robbed us of those skills. I hope that if I've had any effect in my 25 years its to encourage people to take back these skills, to own them and claim them and enjoy them.
Running a business is challenging but actually making the preserves is very creative, it's fun. At its essence is very simple: fruit, acid, sugar, over and over again. You have to be very meditative towards this work. It's repetitive work. But there's so much pleasure in bringing it together.
On being self-taught. If you can apprentice with somebody else, that's a fine way of learning but it's not always possible. I'm self-taught so I value learning as you go, having an apprenticeship with yourself. I have a questioning mind and a determination to do it over and over again. By engaging my full senses in all ways, I begin to understand why things happen or don't happen, or what to do to change it next time around. It's learning by doing. I'm a total believer in that. I think it's fundamental.
On repetition. Be willing to do it over and over again. Jiro the sushi chef said that in his movie (Jiro Dreams of Sushi), right? He said something like "each time is an opportunity to do better." And he also said, "choose your craft and dedicate your life to it." Those two statements were very profound for me. After I heard that, I came to work and I was cutting peel — I don't get to do as much prep work as I would like these days — and as I was cutting, I thought: each time I get to understand this again. Each cut is simple, humble, repetitive. Very meditative, if you enjoy it. Each opportunity is an opportunity to do it as well as one can do.
Thank you, June!