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British Reserve Is Put in Preserves

Traditional jam-maker Tiptree's motto is `We want to do it ourselves'

By Christopher AndreaeSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / September 5, 1990


BLACKBERRY, apricot, strawberry, raspberry, a clear honey, and an orange marmalade: These are the jams served to guests at the Ritz Hotel, Piccadilly, London. They are all made by the same long-established maker of jams, jellies, conserves, and preserves - Wilkin & Sons Ltd. of Tiptree in Essex. Keith Stanley, head chef at the Ritz, assesses Tiptree jams succinctly: ``They are far superior, I think.'' To the Ritz, he says, they are the ``best quality we can offer to our clients.'' And adds: ``Since we serve 150 afternoon teas every day, our strawberry jam must be quite good - it should be - and it is!''

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Tiptree jam, named after the village in which the family company has operated for over a century, could hardly ask for a better endorsement. At a time when the jam industry in the United Kingdom has been declining for decades, the popularity of Tiptree continues to grow. Although it commands a mere 2 percent of the British jam market, and remains almost obstinate about the smallness of its operation, Tiptree is so efficiently marketed that it seems ubiquitous here.

The Ritz is only one of about 350 British hotels (150 in London alone) that buy Tiptree jam - not to mention delicatessens, fine food retailers, and, to a lesser extent, supermarkets in 50 countries. The company's own distinctive green, gold, and black elegantly other-era vans deliver special orders daily to London hotel clients, and its larger trucks cover the whole of England and Wales once a week - Scotland once every two weeks.

There is no band of salesmen. The smallest shop orders direct from Wilkin & Sons. The policy, as sales manager Ian Thurgood says on a tour of the factory and fields, is virtually the company motto: ``We want to do it ourselves.'' This approach, he says, ``gives you the satisfaction of knowing you've got it right.''

Of course, even this Rolls-Royce of jam makers doesn't always manage to get everything right. Jam making has its own imponderables. It is not, Thurgood observes, ``an exact science'' - particularly when you're fussy about quality. Particularly when, as Tiptree does in the main, you grow your own fruit and pick your own fruit and jam it fresh, in season, unpulped, and unfrozen. And particularly when there's the British weather.

``In a rainy season, everything swells,'' Thurgood says. ``Strawberries, particularly, swell, and their flavor is sharper than usual. But a dry season means you get a very sweet, concentrated taste.''

There are also frosts to allow for: The Victoria plum crop has failed for two years running.

What makes one jam better than another? Tiptree thinks it knows. Tim Hansell, marketing manager for Fortnum & Mason (a specialty store well-known for its quality groceries, including its own line of jams) says it is determined by ``the quality of the fruit and the fruit content actually in the jam.'' Thurgood points out that Tiptree jams have always been ``extra'' jams, meaning that there must be a 45 gram minimum of fruit per 100 grams: ``That's what you have to start with.'' In fact, Tiptree aims substantially higher.

THURGOOD lays great emphasis on the freshness of the fruit. A jam expert who wishes to remain anonymous because she can't be seen to favor one make over another, explains: ``The whole point about the fruit is the pectin, which is what is reacting with the sugar to make it `set.' So the fresher the fruit you can use, the better the pectin content and therefore the ... less boiling you need to achieve the set, and the process doesn't break down your fruit any more than is absolutely necessary.'' Pectin varies seasonally, and sometimes must be added - but not coloring or preservatives, at Tiptree.

The factory consists of old buildings in which traditional methods are used. New technology plays a part in controlling the boilers, filling and vacuum-capping the jars (a serpentine procession of filled jars meanders jauntily along a conveyer as the jam is cooled and the fruit dispersed equally through the jam), and in labeling.