It just so happened that the day after we arrived in San Francisco June Taylor was giving a preserve-making workshop at Copia, a fancy new-ish cultural center for food and wine located in Napa. I chanced upon the announcement on her website. What luck! If you want to get a sense of why I was so excited, you can take a look at a previous post about her from a few months back here.
We left bright and early so we could take full advantage of the surrounding area, making a quick pitstop at Philz and Tartine. [More on Tartine soon, I promise--m.] The drive was beautiful. Wild fennel lined the roads adding much to the already striking North Bay scenery. We arrived at Copia about an hour before our workshop, walked through the center, tasted a few wines and beers they had to sample, stopped at a nearby farmer's market, and saw a bit of the grounds around the center. The quince tree was awfully tempting with its perfect fruit, but I stayed strong and didn't steal one.
The workshop consisted of a series of tastings; preserves, fruit, and a glass of wine. All the while June spoke informally about making preserves: how she got started and where she is going, the importance of knowing where your fruit comes from: who grows it, where, and how... She was such a warm person, I immediately warmed up to her, as did others, judging by the amount of questions and comments she inspired. I can credit her with having finally given me the complete freedom to use the amount of sugar I think is best rather than following some "safety" guideline which renders all preserves the same: sweet.
She then took us around the grounds of Copia, along with the head gardener. We smelled and tasted all kinds of fruits and herbs and talked about possible combinations to use in preserves. The highlight of the tour was the Mulberry tree. Such perfect, sweet, ripe berries. I could have gorged myself like a silkworm, but much of the fruit was out of reach on the highest branches.
After her talk, I approached her and asked if I could drop in on her workspace while I was in San Francisco. She said I just needed to give her a call to arrange a day for a rendez-vous, and that she'd look forward to my visit.
The next week, I found myself walking down a long street in Berkeley towards June Taylor's Still-Room. It is situated near the water in what looks like an up-and-coming neighborhood. The area used to be an industrial one, but now houses all kinds of boutiques, restaurants, and even a distillery. I found her in the middle of making a batch of plum jam.
She took my arrival in stride, warning me that when the jam was ready, she'd be moving pretty fast, but otherwise my timing was good. The sweet and tart smell of the plums permeated the space. The front area is being arranged into a storefront, which is great news for all you Bay Area residents, and all those planning to visit the Bay Area in the near future. You will now be able to go to one place and choose the exact preserve you want, rather than being at the mercy of what select stores happen to carry. It is impressive to look at her entire catalogue made physical in the form of stacks upon stacks of boxes, each filled with a different sort of preserve: meyer lemon marmalade, greengage plum butter, strawberry-rose geranium conserve, blackberry-lemon verbena conserve, three fruit maramalade... And her line of syrups is growing alongside her preserves.
Behind the storefront space is her large kitchen. The ceiling is quite high and has a skylight, which adds to the light airiness of the room. The walls are white. The kitchen is arranged in an organized and uncluttered manner. This is definitely not the kind of home kitchen table where life's mess is swept aside to make way for the huge pot of bubbling preserves; preserves which somehow have to find their way into the jars without making too much of a mess or tipping over (i.e. my kitchen). This is definitely not the kind of kitchen where June got her start some 17 years ago. We talked for a long time about her beginnings, the long hours and the years it took for her to get to where she is. She's worked hard so as not to make compromises. Her batches are impossibly small when compared with most other preserve companies, 30 jars being her average per batch. This is the way she started things, and this is the way she intends to continue her operation into the forseeable future. She stirs every batch, tastes and adjusts it, holds it up to the light. This may not make for the soundest business plan, but, then again, she's more of an artisan than a businessperson, and this is also why her preserves taste like no others.
We spent a few hours together, drinking tea, chatting, and overseeing the batches as they neared the finished stage. It was a lovely way to spend an afternoon and I came away from the experience energized. I learned a lot from her in those hours, but, more importantly, I felt that I'd found a kindred soul. She jarred up the elephant heart plum conserve and left the jars to seal on a rack. I can't wait to open mine up and eat it on some fresh bread, or better yet, share it with friends over a lovely autumn dinner with wine and cheese. You can find her preserves on her website, the farmer's market at the Ferry Terminal, or at a few stores in the Bay Area, such as Peet's or the Cheese Board.