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British Reserve Is Put in Preserves

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

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But it is ``the ladies'' who are crucial. They, in varying numbers depending on the season, hand-sort the fruit when it arrives, and then do all the laborious, kitchen-table details - trimming, coring, cutting, and slicing - before it goes to the boilers. The ladies like some fruit better than others. One said: ``I hate doing apples ... holding the knife all day.'' To Thurgood's surprise, she preferred strawberries by far.

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The boilers are deliberately small, to avoid massive damage to the fruit: The main ones, in a battery of 12, each cook only about 100 pounds of jam at once.

Jams just made are tasted and inspected by directors or factory managers. Samples that have been looked at earlier in the morning sit on a table. The testers look for various qualities, including acceptable Tiptree flavor. ``And they make sure it's a decent set,'' says Thurgood. ``Not too solid - so that when you run a spoon through it, it comes apart but doesn't crack.''

Out in the 1,100 acres of fruit-growing farmland owned by Wilkin & Sons, an enormous amount of seasonal labor is employed for picking. In the factory, the work force is a mere 160. On the farm year-round, 25. But ``you'll find anything up to 1,200 people at any one time picking in the fields,'' Thurgood says, on a drive past the international farm camp that houses young people, many this year from Eastern Europe. ``They can be pensioners, local people, students. They come for a couple of weeks or several months,'' Thurgood says. Most fruit is picked several times, as it ripens unevenly. This, except in the case of black currants, makes machine-picking impossible or undesirable.

Tiptree has, in its lengthy history, dropped some jams as they became less popular - rhubarb, for instance, and marrow-and-ginger - but has also added others, such as Kiwi, Passion Fruit, and Guava preserves. These ``exotics,'' like the Seville marmalade oranges trucked from Spain, cannot be grown even in this sandy, dry part of Southern England. Strangely, also, raspberries do not grow well here. They were tried for a long time, but the firm now gets them from Scotland.

SOME Tiptree jams are hardly usual. Elderberry, for instance, quince, or medlar (an ancient sort of fruit, a cross between a rose-hip and an apple). Also, though in such small quantities that it cannot even meet domestic demand, they make Mulberry Conserve. There are very few mulberry trees here and, Thurgood explains, everyone hates picking them. The juice runs down your arm and stains it. Pickers are paid by weight, and the core of the fruit, the heaviest part, is removed and not counted in the weight. Mulberry is by far their most expensive jam at 2.28 ($4.42) per 12-ounce jar. They only produce 2,000 jars of it a year.

The jam unique to Tiptree, however, is Little Scarlet Strawberry Conserve. It is unique because they are the only people who grow this small (almost alpine) strawberry commercially. A jar of Little Scarlet contains about 125 strawberries. A jar of normal strawberry jam contains 25.

It is a plant with an unpredictable character, because it is essentially wild. ``You plant a field of it and two or three days later the whole lot can be just brown and finished. Usually, you get up to 50 percent gaps in a field,'' says Thurgood. It takes some picking, too - ``a lot of hand-work.'' Tiptree has specialized in Little Scarlet for almost 100 years now. At one time they almost lost the strain. ``Some years it chooses not to crop - no rhyme or reason to it,'' Thurgood says. When this happens, the difference between Tiptree and other jam makers becomes apparent. Tiptree ``can't just go and buy another 10 tons of that commodity'' from some other grower, he says. Nobody else grows it.