Rachel Saunders’ dream as a child was to write a cookbook. For as long as she can remember, Rachel would pore over cookbooks, enjoy their beautiful pictures and think of the dishes she would cook up. Fortunately for us, her mother encouraged her to experiment in the kitchen, because this is how Rachel discovered her flair for cooking. “One time I wanted to make this complex curry,” Rachel remembers. “It called for all of these spices that my mother had never heard of, like fenugreek. She was very supportive of me as I put these unusual ingredients together to produce a perfect curry.”
Rachel is attracted to the complexity of cooking. “This is something I have discovered about myself,” she told me. “I am really attracted to complicated things and I love the challenge of mastering their complexity.” In college, Rachel studied French. She loved the idea of mastering a language. When she discovered jam, she was immediately drawn to its intricate quality. To her, it was like a language waiting to be learnt. So, after college, this is exactly what she did. She spent ten years learning everything there is to know about jam.
Mastering the language of jam, for Rachel, meant understanding how fruit works, understanding which fruit works together and understanding how sugar and pectin fit into the equation. Once you learn the parts of the jam making process, you can combine them with ease, the way you combine words to form a sentence.
Learning jam was a long and extensive process. She did almost all of her learning in the kitchen, through trial and error. “I found that many jam cookbooks out there were not helpful at all. They skipped steps and there were no pictures to help the reader understand what was going on.” After a chance encounter with someone in the publishing industry who mentioned that there was a market for jam cookbooks, Rachel began to think that perhaps now was the time for her to create a cookbook. “I wanted to include everything I wish someone had told me about jam-making. After spending all of that time learning all of these methods through trial and error, why on earth wouldn’t I want to teach that to other people?” This was how the Blue Chair Jam Cookbook came to be. “I wanted to write the definitive cookbook on jam,” she says.
Before she began work on the cookbook, Rachel had already established a jam company called Blue Chair Fruit Company. Rachel’s jams are known throughout the Bay Area and indeed, the country, for being complex and very high in quality. Rachel continues to be heavily involved in their production. She ensures that all of the fruit is chopped by hand and that the jams are cooked in small batches in her iconic large copper pots. She has managed to grow her business while ensuring the quality of each bottle of jam remains as delicious as the very first bottle she made.
Rachel says that the best part of her day is talking to her sous-chef, Jo, about possible jam flavors. The two of them are inspired by flavors and experiences in everyday life. “Anything can inspire me,” says Rachel. “I can eat a squid salad and it will make me think of an interesting fruit flavor combination.” Rachel and Jo spend hours bouncing around ideas about the next round of jams they might create. After her years of study and experience, Rachel has become so fluent in the language of jam making that she doesn’t even need to do a trial batch of jam. She is so familiar with each fruit that she knows exactly which fruit will combine well and how the jam making process will work.
Blue Chair Fruit jams are available from specialty food stores all over the country and also online on their website. Rachel sent me home with a couple of jams. I will be reviewing them soon, so stay tuned for some tasty reviews.