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Marmalade mama

Mar./Apr. 2007 California Country magazine

British-born, Berkeley resident June Taylor makes 25,000 jars of preserves a year.



Berkeley woman's creations preserve summer's sweetness


There's a hidden treasure in Berkeley. Quiet, confident and tucked in an immaculate industrial kitchen sits The Still Room. It's a place that is preserving the art of preserving--one jar at a time.

But more important than the place is the person. British-born June Taylor is the force behind this sweet stuff, making 25,000 jars of preserves a year. And her creations aren't your everyday preserves--not with flavors like "Damson Plum," "Pluot and Lavender," "Strawberry and Rose Geranium" and "Grapefruit and Meyer Lemon." Taylor is a stickler for quality. She uses very little sugar and no commercial pectin, but lots of heart. Some have dubbed her marmalades and conserves "heaven on a spoon."

"I am a conduit. I am basically a translator of great fruit," Taylor humbly said.

How does she do it? She calls on her love of nature, her craft and the finest, freshest California fruits she can find.

One step into The Still Room--inconspicuous and marked by a simple typed sign--and you are unexpectedly met with nature. Bird feathers, rocks and pebbles adorn the place. It's no coincidence that it's very meditative, or still. Even the hand slicing of the fruit seems almost silent. The room's name is no fluke either. Taylor gleaned the idea from the 1903 English book, "The Still Room," which describes a room traditionally used for this work.

"It was that special room in a country house and obviously going back historically where they would have preserved all of the items--all of the fruits and vegetables from the gardens for later in the year," explained Taylor.

This investigative look on life is quintessential Taylor. Her first career was in sociology, exploring what makes people tick. Making preserves came later, after she married her American husband, worked as a bread maker in restaurants and then had a baby.

Taylor's son's birth prompted her to bake and sell bread out of her home, but she realized the bread's toppings--the preserves--were a more viable adventure.

"There was no game plan," laughed Taylor. "You know this was one of those moments in one's life where you turn a corner and something completely, radically different appears."

Taylor's customers are grateful not only for that life-altering decision, but for her inherent abilities and skill. For anyone who craves a juicy white peach in the dead of winter, marmalades and conserves offer sweet satisfaction. Preserving, as its name implies, holds onto nature's bounty--and Taylor does this beautifully.

Her first step is in finding the perfect fruit. Relying on California-grown and mostly organic fruit, Taylor prefers to meet her produce.

"The first thing you can do is put it to your nose. Is there any aroma?" she said. "How does it feel in the hand? Is it a heavy piece of fruit? Does it have a good blush? A good vitality?"

Taylor prides herself on using forgotten fruits--varieties such as Diamond Princess peaches and damson (or Santa Rosa) plums--which great-grandma may have known, yet are missing from today's fruit baskets.

Finding the fruit also means finding the farmer. Taylor uses small family farms for her supplies and knows the people behind the produce.

"What I try and do is build a relationship with a farmer that's a long-term relationship, so that we come to understand one another in what I might need for preserving and what they need in terms of selling their fruit," she said. "It's really about a relationship and a trust."

Taylor has developed that kind of union with Tory Farms in Dinuba. Rebecca and Tory Torosian's farm produces 65 varieties of stone fruits, and many of their peaches and plums end up inside one of Taylor's jars.

"We're trying our best to grow stuff that's really good," said Tory Torosian. "And someone as discriminating as June, it's a good compliment."

One late summer day, Taylor stepped out of the kitchen and trekked four hours to Tory Farms. Touring and tasting, she spotted a beloved damson plum hanging on the tree. Damsons are small, dark and oval-shaped plums more common in England, yet rarely known these days in the United States. Their flavor is tart but perfect for preserving.

"It's hard to actually find the damson plum," Taylor said. "It is rare. I'm interested in bringing back these flavors."

Setting foot on the farm gets Taylor up close and personal with the growing process and gives her a glimpse of what farming entails. "I have an ongoing, deeper and deeper respect for farmers and how they manage to keep their sanity in the face of nature," she said.

Loaded with fruit from Tory Farms, Taylor heads home. She's revealed another trick to her trade: plucking produce at its peak. Taylor likes her fruit ripe and ready, as it is then primed for preserving.

Sorting, slicing and sectioning the fruit is done at a steady pace by Taylor and two employees. It's a labor of love, and Taylor refuses to let her operation get so big that it takes her away from the action.

"A few years ago I had three or four people working with me and I got to a point where I really wasn't engaged with the fruit very much and you lose sight," she said.

An eye always on the fruit, Taylor gathers the goods, including fruit segments and fruit rinds for marmalade, and places them in mammoth pots. Nearly 100 pounds of fruit may be cooked per pot, depending on the product. A smidge of sugar is added, and the only pectin is the fruit's own natural pectin. Recipes are used as guidelines, not mandates. This may be the crux of her creations and she teaches this to eager students in her one-day class on the principles of preserving.

"They want me to tell them to put in a tablespoon of this, a cup of that and a pound of this, and instead you say, 'Look in the pot, observe what you see, trust your senses, experience this process,'" she said.

The process is mostly the cooking, or simmering. The fruit may cook for 30 or 40 minutes or even longer, depending on the batch or whether the batch is for marmalade or conserves. When the cooking is deemed complete, hot glass jars are whisked from the oven where they've been warming. Next Taylor ladles the preserves into the awaiting jars.

Finally, labels are stuck on by hand, just like the good ol' days. Taylor says that is the main point: preserving this art of the past so it remains an art of the present and into the future. "We don't want to lose the craft of preserving. We don't want to lose these fruit varieties. We don't want to lose the small family farmers."

Jennifer Harrison is a reporter for the popular weekly television program "California Country." She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or j.harrison@comcast.net.


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