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Kick out the jams

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When April McGreger began planning her own business, she knew that, above all, she wanted to help support local farmers. In 2007 McGreger, who has a background as a pastry chef and worked at Lantern restaurant in Chapel Hill, began selling pickles and preserves at the Carrboro Farmers' Market as Farmer's Daughter.

Making preserves, McGreger explains, is a way to pay farmers for excess produce they might not be able to sell at the market. Fruit for Farmer's Daughter jams comes mostly from farms that sell at the Carrboro Farmers' Market, and other produce is sourced through the Eastern Carolina Organics farm cooperative.

Many Farmer's Daughter jams, such as old-fashioned fig preserves, are inspired by traditional Southern recipes and regional flavors. (The Bourbon'd Fig Preserves won a 2011 national Good Food Award.)

McGreger, who was raised in a small farming community in Mississippi, often looks to family recipes or historical cookbooks for ideas. "It's a way for me to get at my own culinary roots," she says.

Other recipes are more contemporary—"a riff off traditional recipes," she says—such as the Peach Jam with Vanilla Bean and Bourbon. Current seasonal offerings include orange marmalade with rye whiskey and scuppernong chutney.

Newcomers to North Carolina, Ali Rudel and Ben Filippo, who run This & That Jam in Chapel Hill, have wasted no time becoming involved with the local food community. They have made jam for Durham's traveling food-bike Monuts Donuts and recently teamed with Inter-Faith Food Shuttle to teach a free canning workshop to a group of Congolese refugee families in Raleigh.

Filippo studied the anthropology of food in college and learned preservation techniques on farms in India and Maine; Ali previously worked as a pie baker in New York. Their culinary backgrounds contribute to their repertoire of creative and diverse recipes, such as muscadine grape and baby ginger jam, and valencia orange and black pepper marmalade.

"Each recipe is a story," Filippo says. Whenever possible, he explains, they try to incorporate traditional recipes and food origins into their ingredients.

The couple is working on their home certification from the U.S. Department Agriculture so they can start selling their jams in January. Next year they plan to sell at farmers markets and through JSA (Jam Supporting Agriculture), in which subscribers receive a monthly supply of seasonal jams. A sneak preview of one of their spring seasonal jams? Wild onion stout preserve.

Soon after 29-year-old Liza Zaytoun started a lunch delivery service in Raleigh—her specialty was homemade sandwiches and sides—she realized that she wanted to make the toppings and everything from scratch, so she began producing jams.

"I love stirring a pot of jam because time slows down and you have to focus on the jam and nothing else," she says.

Even though she is a novice jam maker, she learns, like many cooks, by experimentation.

Blueberry blackberry jam is Porch ROCKIN's signature product, but Zaytoun has expanded into seasonal flavors. In the summer, she handpicked honeysuckle and sourced local strawberries for a strawberry honeysuckle jam; this winter, she is selling apple pear jelly, pumpkin tangerine jam and cranberry pomegranate jam.

Rose Shepherd, who runs Blessed Earth Farm, has been making homemade jams and pickles for more than 30 years. Raised in upstate New York, Shepherd became interested in making jams after the birth of her oldest son because she wanted to feed him healthier foods. She also grew much of her own food and needed a way to use the extra produce in the summer.

Creating healthy, low-sugar but still delicious jams is at the heart of Shepherd's business. "I hate fake food," she says. "I want to create a healthy product that you want to give to your family."

All of the produce in Blessed Earth's jams is grown in North Carolina, most of it by Shepherd herself. She's so devoted to farming that in 2005 she moved fertile soil—"black gold"—from her previous home to her one-acre farm in Alamance County. From that soil she grows a bounty of raspberries, blackberries, pears, peaches, plums, figs, apples and cherries. Her jams change with the seasons. Fall and winter favorites include cranberry orange chutney, pumpkin apple butter and fig chutney.

Shepherd's flavors and recipes have evolved as she has expanded her orchard and learned how to reduce sugar without sacrificing taste. She prepares jams for diabetics and people with other food restrictions.

Her advice to jam makers just starting out: "Don't be afraid to experiment."

Amy and Ray Sugg moved to Chatham County from Wilmington in 1991 to open a hardware store, and began growing produce on their 31-acre Bonlee Grown Farm. They sold plants and vegetables from their land, but in those days, Amy says, no one sold jams and jellies.

So the Suggs got home-certified and began to make jams from their produce. "I was just a city girl," Amy says, "and didn't know the first thing about making jams." But some local older women took her under their wing and taught her everything. They even shared recipes, some of which Amy has vowed not to disclose.

Bonlee Grown Farm specializes in those traditional jams and jellies that longtime Southerners cherish: pepper jelly, strawberry preserves, apple butter and hot pepper jelly.

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