I'm a firm believer in the theory that if you cook with quality ingredients harvested at their peak ripeness, you don't need to do much to create a great dish.
But when real culinary talent combines with a commitment to using only the best seasonal, locally-grown, organic ingredients, then something truly special is created.
Nothing illustrates this principle better than the artisan jams from Becky Smith and June Taylor.
Smith, a former pastry chef at Oakland's Oliveto restaurant, produces a line of organic jams and pastries made exclusively from the exceptional stonefruit and pears grown on Frog Hollow Farm, where she lives with her partner, farmer Al Courchesne.
Taylor, who coincidentally was the baker at Oliveto several years before Smith, is dedicated to ``resurrecting unusual fruit varieties" such as crab apples, quince and kumquats in her line of organic June Taylor Jams.
And both women are each, in their own ways, committed to supporting sustainable agriculture through their artisan jams.
Technically, neither Smith nor Taylor's products are jams. The Food and Drug Administration specifies that a jam should have 65 percent added sugar. The fruit products created by Smith and Taylor average only about 20 percent or less added sugar, which actually makes them ``spreadable fruit" by FDA standards.
How can these two enterprising women get away with using so much less sugar than commercially made jams? As Smith explains, ``The fruit used in commercially made jams is usually not as good; it's often picked unripe, so the fruit sugars are lower, which means more sugar needs to be added to the final product."
Add to that the consequences of mass-production methods and out-of-season fruit transported long distances, and you end up with a jam that tastes cloyingly sweet, with no real essence of the fruit itself.
Smith and Taylor prepare their jams in small batches, which gives them strict quality control over their final products. Taylor says she averages only 12-15 jars per pot of cooked fruit, often all harvested from the same tree.
Both Taylor and Smith began making preserves while employed at Oliveto, although Taylor first began experimenting with marmalades (which are made with citrus peel and juice) at home. She launched her business in 1990, with three of her still-current bestsellers, Grapefruit-Meyer Lemon Marmalade, Blood Orange Marmalade, and a zingy Three-Fruit Marmalade.
Taylor's interest in organics came about when she was pregnant. ``That was a turning point, in deciding not to raise my son on commercial foods," she says. ``I was interested in the politics and land use aspects of sustainable agriculture as well. It was more than just a self-health thing."
While Taylor likes to base her products on traditional British recipes, she is committed to exclusively using only fresh, seasonal fruit, rather than frozen, and on supporting small farmers.
``There's a bigger picture than just making food," says Taylor. ``We need to keep our economy vibrant, and small farms create some of our most exciting fruits."
In addition to marmalades (of which there are 13), Taylor's line of 50-plus products include delicate, silken fruit butters (cooked, twice-pureed fruits), conserves (which often include nuts - try her heavenly Rhubarb-Almond or Greengage Plum), and such specialities as Kadota Figs in Grand Marnier-Rosemary Syrup, Seckel Pears in Cassis Vinegar Syrup, and Preserved Blood Oranges in Clementine Brandy Syrup. She also uses herbal and floral infusions, such as in her subtle Rhubarb-Rose Geranium Conserve.
Taylor, who rents a commercial kitchen space in Oakland, also produces a small line of delicious scones and cookies for the Berkeley and Ferry Plaza farmers' markets, and Scottish shortbread and vegetarian mincemeat for the holidays. Her true love, however, are her jams.
``They're not flashy, but with the current interest in heirloom and unusual varieties, I think people are appreciating the complexities of flavor more. I concentrate on working with the fruit, rather than dominating it."
All fruits used in Becky Smith's jams and pastries are grown on Frog Hollow Farm. With the exception of the apples (Frog Hollow purchased a neighboring orchard last year and is converting it to organic), all the fruit is organic.
Smith's interest in sustainable agriculture and seasonality was influenced by a stint cooking at Chez Panisse-offshoot Cafe Fanny. By the time she reached Oliveto, she was devoted to cooking seasonally and using locally-grown, organic ingredients whenever possible.
In 1994, Smith met Frog Hollow farmer Al Courchesne at a conference, and in 1995 moved to the Brentwood farm to learn more about organic peach farming. In 1998, Smith launched her jam business with her current best-seller, ``Becky's Perfectly Peach," renting space in the Cafe Fanny and Lark Creek Cafe kitchens to make each batch.
In 2000, Frog Hollow completed work on a commercial kitchen on the farm, which has enabled Smith to expand her line of seven jams which include Saucy Cherry made with California Zinfandel, Asian Pear Chutney, Peach Chutney and, my personal favorite, the chunky, meltingly luscious Abundantly Apricot jam.
Smith's repertoire also now includes fruit galettes and tartlettes, and such seasonal delights as Pear Spice Cake and Apple Crisp.
Her focus is on ``creating products that utilize what we grow," she says. You can't have a successful final product without starting out with great fruit and it's really gratifying to have that type of quality right here at home."
Smith hopes to continue to expand her line of handmade pastries, from which she derives the most satisfaction. ``It's so immediate with pastry - you watch people buy it from the stand at the farmers' market and eat it on the spot," she says.
In addition to Frog Hollow's mail order, Smith's fruit galettes are available frozen from Dean & Deluca stores. Her jams and fresh pastries are available at Bay Area farmers' markets including Berkeley, San Francisco Ferry Plaza and Danville, and at Bay Area specialty food stores. For mail order, visit www.froghollow.com or call (925) 634-2845.
June Taylor Jams are available at local specialty food stores and at Bay Area Farmers' markets including Berkeley and San Francisco Ferry Plaza. For mail order, visit www.junetaylorjams.com, or call (510) 923-1522.
BECKY'S PEAR CAKE
Recipe by Becky Smith, Frog Hollow Farm.
Serve this light, delicate cake with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream enhanced with a little Calvados or Poire Williams.
8 ounces (two sticks) unsalted butter
2 cups sugar
1 cup light brown sugar
4 large eggs
1 ½ tablespoons fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 cups peeled, diced very ripe pears (or use poached pears or chunky apple sauce)
4 cups pastry flour (or use 2 cups cake flour and 2 cups all-purpose flour)
2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk
1 cup nuts, chopped
Powdered sugar for dusting top of cakes
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line the bottoms of two 9-inch cake pans with parchment or wax paper. Grease parchment and sides of pans with butter.
Cream butter and both sugars. Add eggs, ginger and vanilla and mix until smooth.
Add pears to egg mixture and mix until just incorporated. Mixture will look somewhat curdled - this is okay.
In a medium bowl, mix together the flour, baking powder salt and nuts.
Alternately add dry ingredients and buttermilk to egg mixture, mixing between each addition until ingredients are just incorporated. Do not overmix.
Pour batter into prepared cake pans and bake one hour, until tops are golden and toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Allow cakes to cool for 10 minutes, then dust tops with powdered sugar. Makes two 9-inch cakes.
Per Serving: 572 Calories; 24g Fat; 8g Protein; 84g Carbohydrate; 2g Dietary Fiber; 104mg Cholesterol; 308mg Sodium. Exchanges: 2 Grain (Starch); 1/2 Lean Meat; 1/2 Fruit; 4 1/2 Fat; 3 Other Carbohydrates.
E-mail Laurel Miller at email@example.com.
This column is a service of the Berkeley Farmers' Market and Eating Fresh Publications (www.eatingfresh.com) publishers of "Cooking Fresh from the Bay Area."
The Berkeley Farmers' Market is open 2-7 p.m. Tuesdays at Derby Street and MLK
Jr. Way, and 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays at Center Street and MLK Jr. Way.
Call (510) 548-3333 or visit www.ecologycenter.org