A Jam Fit for a QueenHome >> Experiences
The French are always on the forefront of fighting unemployment, and now harness the world's passion for fine foods to tackle endemic joblessness in Lorraine. During my French castle expedition, I was received by Mr Dutriez, the largest producer of what can only be the most expensive jam in the world.
Bar-le-Duc, a town in North-East France, has been making fine jams and preserves for the grandees of the world for the last 700 years. By far their most distinctive and famous product is the hand-seeded red currant jam. A 3-oz (85gr) jar goes for $40 a piece unless you buy it at the producer's. The product has been gluttonously endorsed by many famous people across centuries:
Alfred Hitchcock, the British dietician, was so fond of it that French hotels placed this gooseberry jam on their breakfast menu to attract him and his crew. As soon as he left, they took it out by fear of going bankrupt whithin a week. For a tiny jar of this nectar will set you back 15€ if you buy in Bar and 40€ if in New York.
Other grandees who lost their head about this jam include Mary, Queen of Scots and, briefly, Queen of France too in the 1500s. She said this was like «a ray of sun in a crystal jar». Indeed the weather of Bar-le-Duc is as sunny as that of Marbella when compared to the Scottish Highlands.
Until the French Revolution there were hundreds of jam makers in Bar-le-Duc, producing up to 100,000 pounds of this jam every year. They became the chic gift for European aristocrats. With the beheading of the social order, the market for those expensive product collapsed overnight. By the second world war less than a hundred jam makers survived. Mr Dutriez's father Jacques bought the last remaining maker of confiture de groseilles from his former boss, René Amiable, in 1974. Mr Dutriez, whom you see on my pictures, transferred the company to his eldest daughter in 2000, and unless things go Mad Max on us, the Dutriez dynasty will rule over red currant jams for a few more generations.
Mr Dutriez showed me how the deseeding works - right fascinating even though he wouldn't let anyone near the copper cauldrons where the jam is cooked. First, he cuts the stem of each currant. If you pull the stem like a Barbarian, most of the flesh will come out, leaving only the skin. You just have to use scissors, explained Dutriez.
What makes this product so special is that normally you can't make red currant jam without including an avalanche of unappetising seeds. Extracting the juice to make a jelly is a pretty straightforward business, but a jam contains the skin and flesh of the fruits - a very different animal. So, sometime in the 14th century, local monks had the idea of removing the seeds of red currants before making the jam. One by one, with a goose quill.
Dutriez grabs a couple of quills, cuts the tip with scissors and starts seeding his red currants. Each épépineuse likes to cut her quill in a different way, but the idea is to have a sharp tip and a sort of tube to grab the seeds and remove them, he explains. I ask him if the idea of using goose quills does not frighten clients from America, but Dutriez smiles and says The jam is cooked in sugar at high temperature for a very long time, no germ can survive this. If they did, we would see them in the pots but they are full sterile.
As our épépineuses (she-seed-removers) work at home during 3 weeks in June every year. We pay them by the weight of seedless red currants they bring back. Each batch of jam is cooked with the fruits from one épépineuse only, so we can tell her the next day how many seeds exactly she missed, said Dutriez with a managerial expression. An experiences épépineuse can do 1kg of deseeded fruits in 3 hours, whereas a student will struggle to make 500 grams (1lb) in a whole day.
To make 1kg of deseeded currants, they use about 1.6kg of raw red currants.
The seeded fruits are then added to a hot water syrup made by heating water and an equal amount of sugar in a copper basin. The jams is cooked and the scum is skimmed off until nothing unbecoming a Queen's jam appears in the pot. Then Mr Dutriez pours his ruby-colored nectar into little sterilized crystal jars with the traditional Bar-Le-Duc octogonal shape and closes the lid. We won't see this.
There is another guy who tries to compete with us with his jams, Dutriez said, but he doesn't have our secret. Although we use only water, fruits and sugar, we have a special way to cook the jam that makes it imperishable. You could open a jar in 100 years time and it will be as good as today.
Dutriez makes his jams from both red currants and gooseberries. The red currants look better, but I prefer the more delicate taste of the gooseberry jam - really out of this world. I think this would make a most elegant gift if you can explain to the lady who receives it how and why it was made. On the face of it, it sounds like a ridiculous endeavor, like these guys who cross the desert jogging backward. But the delicate texture of the jam and its exquisite taste will put any prejudice to rest for good. You owe it to yourself to try this once! And if you can't afford it, just beg, borrow or steal some red currant and enlist the help of a friendly goose to lend a quill. It's fun work and can be done in a day. The "secret" in the cooking of the jam is not needed if you will not store your jams for long.
Each jar contains 3oz (85gr) of the precious nectar. Dutriez produces 500 kilograms of jam a year (1000 pounds) - that's as much as the market will take. Only a handful make it to he US nowadays. Back in the 1980s we used to sell 6000 jars a year in the US, mainly through Universal Foods. But when Mitterand arrived, he had communist ministers in his government, and the Reagan administration pressured Universal Food and other US companies who were importing goods from France to terminate their contracts, and we lost that market. A noble cause no doubt, but American foodies are still paying the price and are deprived of this red food nearly a decade after Mitterand followed the footsteps of Mary, Queen of Scots.
This jam has everything to become a hot item in Japan. Centuries-old tradition, made by a long-established company, with delicate personal attention to each and every currant, it is packed in a gorgeous crystal jar and can be kept for long. Japanese people are very fond of delicate gifts and I'm told there is a huge aftermarket to recycle gifts you have received. Who knows how many years such a jar could revolve across the upper stratum of Japanese society before seeing the light of day one last time?