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!''
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.
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.
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.