When I volunteered in the preserves section at the Good Food Awards back in the fall, I had the great fortune to take home a jar of Marionberry Espresso Jam. Not only was this the first time in my life I got to try a marionberry (for those of you who have never heard of this fruit—I too was once in your position—the marionberry is a sweet and juicy blackberry that was developed at Oregon State University by crossing two different types of blackberries: Chehalem and Olallieberry and only appeared on the market in 1956. Stories like this show us that fruits and vegetables, i.e. the things we take for granted, are more fascinating and complicated than we allow ourselves to imagine), but, once I tried it, I discovered just how haunting the combination of espresso and blackberries could be. Sadly, because the judging was supposed to be blind, the jar was unmarked and, after a few failed Google searches for this flavor, I started to doubt that I would ever discover the genius behind it–as well as how I could get more. But then, when I was washing the jar, I discovered a hidden label beneath the generic white one required by the Good Food Awards and suddenly saw the answer to the question that had been on my mind for several months: the makers of Marionberry Espresso was the The Republic of Jam, a company whose trademark is a grape with rays of light emanating from it (as a former Slavist, I felt that there was something Soviet about the label, as if all the bright and happy future depended on was the grape; I imagine oenophiles everywhere would agree with this. Interestingly, Lynnette would later tell me that the grape is a nod to the company’s location, which is in the wine country of Oregon).
While I immediately looked the company up, I decided not to order anything since I still had a cupboard full of jam. Nevertheless, the company and its many offerings–from Apricot Ginger Saffron to Mango Voignier–stuck with me. Then, when Elizabeth asked me to take over this blog, a thing that I have not done as well as I would have liked, I immediately thought of the Republic of Jam and how I could feature them. I wrote to Lynnette Shaw, the Jam Master who started the company, and asked if I could do an interview with her and write about her products here. Lynnette was nothing but generous and enthusiastic; she immediately responded to my request and sent me, much to my delight, four jars of jam—Strawberry Basil, Marionberry Cinnamon, Blood Orange Black Pepper and Pear Rosemary—and a jar of Blueberry Pickles. The Marionberry was my favorite of the bunch (I like marionberries so much that I now occasionally consider moving to Oregon), both in terms of its subtle spicy flavor and velvety texture, and the Blood Orange and the Pear, with their different savory and herbal notes, were closely tied for second place. The Strawberry Basil was just as good as the others in terms of flavor, but its texture was more reminiscent of a sauce than of a jam; I wondered if this might have been deliberate since the addition of basil and the bright red color of the jam easily evoked a strawberry marinara. And the blueberry pickles, though a bit surprising given the punch that their bite-sized pieces contained, were a real treat when spooned over goat cheese (I should add that this was just as Lynnette said it would be). In any case, I was happy to have them all for swirling into yogurt, for spreading on crisp slices of toast and for making granola (jam will is as good a sweetener as honey and it imbues the granola with a welcome fruity flavor).
The actual tasting, however, was only half the pleasure of writing about this company. On a sunny morning in February (this post is terribly overdue, but life—travel, visitors, responsibilities—sometimes gets in the way of blogging; also, as they say, better late than never), a few weeks after Lynnette and Marionberry Espresso had won at the Good Food Awards, I called her and we spoke for an hour. She was eager to talk about the company, as well as her own trajectory in the industry.
Katy: How did you become or decide to become a jam master?
Lynnette: It was one of those accidental things. I wasn’t raised in this tradition at all; my mother was a convenience cook. I grew up in northern California and then moved to Minneapolis, where I worked at large corporation and came to miss the agriculture offerings of the west coast..
I eventually moved back to the west coast—to Oregon—and when I went to a local farmer’s market on my second day back, I not only wept over the offerings, but was shocked by them, by six different kinds of plums! I’m in a community that values variety and fresh local produce—it’s a tradition in Oregon—and because of the time of year, because of the offerings at the market, it was all really inspiring. I kept going to the market each week and returning home with boxes of fruit and, frankly, there’s only so much pie you could make. I wanted to preserve, so I bought the Ball Blue Book that is known as the canning bible. I made three recipes from this book and found that they were too sugary for me. I have a savory palate and like tart fruits. I’m inspired by what people are doing with savory things and wanted to do that with fruit preserves. I have a science background and wasn’t afraid of the chemistry. Really, I enjoyed coming up with recipes—which I saw more as a fruit sauce than a traditional jam. At the Republic of Jam, we developed the technique of using 4 parts fruit to 1 part sugar; this way, the fruit is kept more vibrant. It’s not dominated by the sugar.
The dirty little secret at Republic of Jam is that I don’t like sweet stuff and, as it turned out, people both were and continue to be receptive to jam that uses sugar only as a preservative, not as a flavor in and of itself. As I made more and more jam, I was giving it as gifts. At that point, starting the business just happened.
I didn’t have a commercial kitchen, which was a barrier, but then something fell in my lap. I started to rent out a little kitchen in a local coffee shop and, within a week, I noticed a tiny little place (we came to call it the “jam shack”) that was a wine tasting room and and that was for rent. I decided we’d come and open on weekends (in addition to selling at farmers markets). When I look back, it all seems so naive and humble, but we opened during a big wine tasting weekend over the Thanksgiving weekend and it took us four weeks to understand that this arrangement wasn’t going to work. The people kept coming and we were sold out; we even stored empty boxes on the shelves to make them look full! We then saw that a tattoo parlor was going out of business and they bought that location and decided to build a kitchen there. I also treat that retail location as a tasting room. We were really surprised by the demand, but it turned out that people want local products with integrity and intention. This is why our business has been like a rocket and we’ve been holding onto it. It was all about luck and good timing.
People come in and taste our products and see us in action and want to know about our culinary background. I always tell them it’s 40+ years’ worth of eating, as well as the work I did in the wine industry (I had a mind for flavor nuances and details in tasting), and somehow these things tap into the enthusiasm of other people. I love that I’ve created something and get to watch people eat it. It’s a way for me to experience their joy—an unbelievable thing. It’s very personal and it allows me to establish a connection with a lot of people. Having a retail location where we can be face to face with our customers is so important. When we made the leap from the jam shack to the much larger space, we realized it was turning into a real thing, but we also didn’t want it to grind us into the ground…
After all, it all started as a hobby. But there were really stressful moments, too. For a while, we had only one burner. On that one burner, I produced over 17,000 jars of jam in 2012. Fortunately, we then decided it was time to get a grown-up stove with six burners, which has made life a lot easier.
Katy: How do you come up with your flavors? Can you describe a typical day in the test kitchen? How much trial and error is involved in the process?
Good question. You’ll find our inventory changes a lot. In our busy season, we can make a batch and sell it out easily in the same week. We’ve also got about 350 different flavors. My assistant, Danny (he actually wrote the recipe for the Marionberry Espresso Jam), helps with the process; we have a lot of discussions about flavors. We really are inspired by people who are doing creative savory things.
But in a way, it just happens. We start thinking about something—for example sour cherries—and look for something unusual that will complement the flavors. This led to our Sour Cherry Tarragon Jam.
I have a restless, creative spirit and want our jams to be not just about the fruit. I like adding something exotic and unexpected. I’m also inspired by descriptions of world cuisine; a friend was telling me about a sour plum sauce that he had tried in Russia (Georgian tkemali) and I then try to adapt it, the idea, to what we’re doing using local plums.
Katy: What is your personal favorite flavor?
Lynnette: I really can’t say. To be honest, it’s usually the last thing I put on the shelf! If I had to pick, though, I love the Pacific Berry. The way that we got a hold of it was amazing. A woman came in and was looking for a donation for a literary auction, but then, as she was leaving, she stopped to say that there might be something we would be interested in. It turned out that her father worked at Oregon State University and was part of an experiment to cross the mountain blackberry (it grows in coastal mountains; it’s tiny and grows like peas. People don’t eat them, deer do) with the raspberry. What resulted was the Pacific Berry and it was deemed not commercially viable since it wilts when you pick it and starts to crumble (it must be frozen or used within 3 hours). It’s a beautiful, delicious berry that was thrown away. But this woman’s father secretly took 20 plants home and now we buy the crop each year. She flash freezes them for us and we turn it into jam and put it on the shelf. It always sells out in 24 hours.
I also love our cassis, which is modeled after a Scottish dessert.
Katy: I read on the Republic of Jam website that,“In keeping with the wonderful wine tasting rooms in our area, we run our store as a jam tasting room where you can try a flight of jams paired or prepared in ways to make you think beyond toast at breakfast — though our jams are fantastic that way, too!”. Given your unique treatment of jam in your retail location, what role do you see jam playing in your ideal kitchen? More importantly, what do you consider jam to be?
Lynnette: Our mission is to push the boundaries of jam. Part of what we do in the tasting room is that we cook with our products. When people come in, they can get a tasting plate with savory things and sweet things –salad or roasts with a fruit sauce.
One time I made this lentil soup and made meatballs with an orange fennel marmalade. It was absolutely delicious. I’ve also used our Cherry Chocolate Jam in a Chicken Chocolate Mole, which was a favorite in the tasting room as well. We get requests for a cookbook all the time; people want to know how to cook with jam. But, really, we’re just making what we want to eat.
We also do a lot with cocktails since we make a lot of syrups (we use the same flavors as we do in our jams; we just strain the pulp). We use these culinary syrups and make cocktails with them; there’s even a quarterly cocktail club at Republic of Jam, where we do cocktail samplers.
We found that the spirit and culture in Oregon, particularly in Carlton where we’re based, is perfect for people who are makers. It’s a really neat place.