The Jam Fairy

Christine Ferber of Alsace, France.

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When exploring the wine route of Alsace, the discerning oenophile will make a beeline for the house of Trimbach in the picturesque town of Ribeauvillé for a taste of wines from the famous Clos Sainte Hune vineyard. A little farther along, gourmets make a pilgrimage to the village of Illhaeusern, home of the famous L’Auberge de l’Ill, one of the finest three-Michelin-starred restaurants in France. Another must for foodies in Alsace is the fairy-tale village of Niedermorschwihr, famous for its narrow streets lined with Renaissance-style half-timbered houses, as well as the vineyard of the Grand cru Sommerberg. But there is another crucial destination for gastronomes in the village, and that is Au Relais des Trois Épis, the patisserie of Christine Ferber, one of the greatest pastry chefs in France and considered by many to be the top jam maker on the planet.

In Paris, you can find Ferber’s sublime confitures on the Sunday brunch tables of posh hotels like Le Meurice and Hotel George V, or at the shops of her good friend and fellow Alsatian, Pierre Hermé. Her jams are exported to cities in 19 countries worldwide, including Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Dubai. Even Brad Pitt is rumoured to be a fan. Nicknamed “La fée des confitures” (the Jam Fairy), Ferber personally produces approximately 180,000 jars of jam annually, every single one filled by hand. Au Relais des Trois Épis didn’t originally sell jam. “Around here,” explained Ferber during a visit, “everyone makes jam, like strawberry, raspberry, pear, plum, or quince, so it wasn’t necessarily something you’d assume people would want to buy.” The first jam she made was griotte (Morello cherry). They put the jars on display in the window as decoration, but after multiple requests to purchase them, they sold out in one day.

Nicknamed “La fée des confitures” (the Jam Fairy), Ferber personally produces approximately 180,000 jars of jam annually, every single one filled by hand.

Today, Ferber makes over a thousand varieties of jam, 80 per cent of which are produced using fruit from Alsace. Popular flavours include apricot vanilla bean, rhubarb passion fruit, mirabelle plum, Alsatian blackberry, and the bestselling raspberry violet. According to the ever-humble Ferber. “We try things out, we make things to show a bit of our personality. But what we like most are the simple things—the taste of the product with the purest flavour of the fruit.”

For the past 40-some years, Ferber’s workday has begun at 6 a.m. and carried on for 12 to 16 hours a day, six days a week. She works on the jams alongside her long-time kitchen sidekick, Clothilde Kubler, who is also a pastry chef, and eight young helpers. (In need of more space, she opened a laboratoire in 2015, located down the street from the patisserie, to house a much-needed office and fulfill catering requests along with the jam and chocolate production.) I watched as they made a classic apricot jam. Next up would be a jam made of the rare, red-fleshed pêche de vigne (peach of the grapevine), the freshly delivered cases stacked in the next room. Each variety of jam is cooked in deep copper kettles, always in small batches. Ferber’s technique is to cook the jam quickly after the fruit is picked, with just the right balance of sugar to maintain the integrity of the fruit. All of the jams are cooked over two days: first a quick boil to meld the fruit and sugar together, followed by overnight maceration to draw out all of the fruit’s juices, and finishing with a quick second boil until the desired texture is achieved. Her kitchen helpers stir and skim, stir and skim, before delivering each hot cauldron to Ferber for a final once-over before filling, labelling, and shipping the jars.

“We try things out, we make things to show a bit of our personality. But what we like most are the simple things—the taste of the product with the purest flavour of the fruit.”

When asked whether the stories of Pitt’s visit to the shop to pick up his favourite jam were true, Ferber’s eyes widened. “Apparently, yes,” she said. “He came on the weekend of the Feast of the Ascension, so the store was very crowded. The employee who served him is the most senior saleswoman here. She had no idea who he was. But later when we showed her his picture, she said, ‘Yes, that was him!’ ”

Ferber is a star on the international scene in a profession where male cooks still enjoy the lion’s share of the attention. The secret to her success? “If you rush things, it will not work,” she said. “It’s the passion, the beauty, and the love of this profession. The time you allow and the patience to wait—that’s what’s most important. The big trend in pastry circles right now is a return to the classics, but in the provinces we never forgot them. I follow no trends. I make what I feel—and I feel every piece of fruit that goes into my jam to determine whether it is ripe. Good, beautiful, and as pure as possible…that will always be my goal.”

Photo by Bernhard Winkelmann.

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April 5, 2018