Jam-makers capture summer in a jar
Berry season has sent local fans into a flurry of canning, hoping to capture tangy summer flavors the old-fashioned way
Part of a series savoring the region’s seasonal bounty.
DARTMOUTH — Robin Cohen came to love making jam in her family’s motel kitchen in Montauk, N.Y., where she would spend summers on Long Island picking berries and forgetting, she said, that she was “a kid from the Bronx.”
For the better part of the last two decades, Cohen, 53, who now lives in Arlington, has run a software development business. But three years ago, she became nostalgic for making jams, just the way her father had taught her, and her grandmother had taught him.
“Most people have a midlife crisis and get a sports car, but I had mine with fruit,” she said.
So at 50, she picked up the age-old craft again, joining a number of jam-makers who turn local farmers’ berries, peaches, and plums into spreads that capture summer in a jar for the cold months ahead.
Mid-June to mid-July is prime berry season, and jam-makers have been flocking to markets and pastures for coveted harvests.
“I don’t know if it was the temperatures or the rain this year, but the fruit is amazing,” Cohen said in the Dartmouth farm kitchen where she makes jams twice a week, and where Thursday she was cooking up a batch of blueberry.
Many jam-makers create only enough for family and friends to savor. But Cohen has turned her hobby into a business, selling her creations online through her company, Doves and Figs, and at local markets.
On Wednesday, she had loaded her “jam van” with blueberries from a Kimball Fruit Farm stand. She buys all her fruit from local growers, though that means she doesn’t always get it in consistent batches, or at expected times.
“Sometimes people don’t understand the seasonality of jam-making — they ask why I don’t have more peach jams and I say, ‘Go to the trees and ask if they’ll ripen quick,’ ” Cohen said, laughing.
But she added that her relationship with local farmers is critically important.
“Working with them — that’s what it really means to live off your land,” she said.
Carl Hills, who owns the 200-acre Kimball farm in Pepperell, said the berry harvest begins with strawberries, which has the shortest season.
“Then we roll into raspberries around July 4, and then blueberries a week after that,” he said.
Peaches, nectarines, and plums, he added, are just coming into season.
Berry season has sent other local makers — Alison Coutts Chateauneuf of Mother’s Pure Preserves, Bonnie Shershow of Bonnie’s Jams, and Rene Becker of Hi-Rise Bread Company — into a flurry of canning.
“Like baking bread, making jam is a fascinating craft,” Becker said. “There are so many interesting combinations of fruits . . . and it’s satisfying to eat things you make with your own hands.”
Cohen makes jams the old-fashioned way, as farmers did a century ago, with no preservatives and basic tools.
“I’ve had people ask, ‘Why do you do it the hard way?’ ” Cohen said. “I do it because I want the jams to taste and look how your grandmother’s jams would have.”
On Thursday, Cohen and her assistants dunked 10 pounds of blueberries into a 20-quart steel pan to cook. In minutes, the fruit was a smoking, violet-colored froth.
The heat, Cohen said, squeezes the pectin — the jelly-like substance that holds a jam together — out of the berry skins.
Lemon juice and zest are added next, along with a bucket of sugar, and finally, candied ginger.
That’s enough to make jam for 30 mason jars, which Cohen’s assistant, 19-year-old Michelle Hurwitz, heated up for canning.
With a deft hand, Cohen poured the piping hot jam into each jar, twisted on a hot lid, and dunked the jar into boiling water to set the seal.
Hurwitz, a rising sophomore at UMass Dartmouth, has cooked with Cohen since she was young and makes jams full-time as her summer job.
On Thursday, she wore a Doves and Figs T-shirt emblazoned with a piece of toast that had a smiling face. The logo read: “No Naked Toast — Eat Jam.”
Doves and Figs sells close to 40 flavors, and each one, Cohen said, has “a funky name.”
Thursday’s blueberry preserve is named Sparkle, Cohen said, for its bright, lemony flavor. The most popular is Chocolate Fig Sunshine, made of figs, oranges, apple, and Taza chocolate.
Another popular pair is Peachy Keen, a peach-vanilla jam with a dash of Southern Comfort, and Peachy Mean, a spicy fruit jam.
“Keen is our Southern belle, and Mean is the bad boyfriend her mom doesn’t know about,” Michelle said, grinning.
The jams made Thursday will be delivered to 30 retail shops in New England and six local farmers markets.
It was the feeling of those farmers markets in summer, Cohen said, that inspired the name Doves and Figs. The phrase is taken from an end-of-winter paean in Song of Songs, an Old Testament passage she grew to love in college, where she had studied to become a rabbi.
“It describes how the song of the dove is heard over the land, and everything bursts into bloom,” she said. “It’s so colorful and sensual. . . It’s miraculous to me.
“When I go to the farmers market, that’s exactly what it feels like.”
Correction: Because of an editing error, the ingredients that go into Doves and Figs’ special Sparkle jam were misstated in an earlier caption with this story. It is made from blueberries, Meyer lemons, and candied ginger. The caption also misidentified one of the women making jam, Margie Gordan Hurwitz. Because of a reporting error, the jam company’s logo was misstated. It is “No Naked Toast — Eat Jam.”