I always find it a pleasure when local producers provide more options to food shops around town, especially when what is produced is an artisanal craft product. It’s even better when you are devouring craft food well beyond its intended use.
Oak Park-based Rare Bird Preserves jumped out at me when the Chicago Reader wrote up an article about Elizabeth Madden and her maddening desire to make the freshest, purest preserves. I was able to produce a couple jars of lavender peach about a year ago, and I was especially excited when the Whole Foods on Waveland and Halsted started carrying it a few months ago.
I asked Madden what got her into this highly-specialized enterprise. She said, “I was a career changer. I had studied art and photography and went to the French Pastry School. There was one day of jam making, and I fell in love. I love baking, but I found the process of jam making interesting, and I can provide artisanal products.” After a brief stint at Trotter’s to Go, she started her business, which currently is in a shared kitchen in Oak Park. According to Madden, the business “sets up a position so it sustains itself. I want to have a product with a shelf life.”
“You have to be naive or headstrong. It can be so difficult to start a business that has so many challenges,” according to Madden, and she said it would be impossible “if you don’t love what you do.” Starting with one client, she was able to build her business to include farmers markets and retail outlets such as Marion Street Cheese Market in Oak Park, the Goddess and Grocer, Provenance Food and Wine, and more recently, three Whole Foods locations.
One of the unique aspects of her preserves is that they do not contain commercially-produced pectin, which is a gelling agent used to provide consistency in jams, jellies, and preserves. Naturally-occurring pectin can be found in apples, apricots, and citrus products, and Madden uses apple and lemon peels from the same fruits used to make the preserves. Madden said she learned the technique in pastry school by watching a jam maker who had a different approach. ”The French way is working with apples and red currants. The British way is working with citrus.”
Despite the extra effort involved in using natural pectin, Madden said, “I enjoy the product better, and I don’t understand why I have to throw away apple peels and lemon peels. I put them in cheesecloth bags and [later] put them in with the mix,” said Madden. ”It’s part of the art…you dump pectin if you want [the product] to set [and] tweak it as you go along.” She even takes the orange peels, candies it and dips it in chocolate, a process that takes five days.
Her flavor combinations are not one would find in the aisles of a Jewel supermarket. “How flavors work together and promote inherent qualities of the fruit,” she explained. ”The lavender is there to promote the qualities of the peach. I do experiment–earl gray tea is used to promote the fig.” Flavors are made with local ingredients per season depending on whether they can be grown in the Midwest. The Web site, for instance, mentions that blueberry and peaches are out of stock for the season, meaning it is therefore wise to stock up on product if you do find something you like.
Some of the other flavors I’ve tried included the lemon blueberry and the plum apple hibiscus, and the flavors can also be used on cheese plates, or in my case, spooning clumps of preserves straight out of the jar. The chunkiness of the fruits, combined with the accenting flavors makes for a distinctive profile on the palate.
“I do like a close community with people who love my jam. I love to see the expressions on their face when I watch them eat my jam.” And at $9.99 per six-ounce jar, they aren’t the cheapest, but they also may not last very long in your refrigerator.