Rachel Saunders is in the commercial kitchen space she rents on Santa Clara Avenue slicing melon. Not any melon, mind you. These are heirloom Charentais and Crenshaw melons that she came upon during yesterday’s farmers market forage. Also in her juicy, colorful and scrumptious world
today is a box of ruby-red Satsuma plums that somebody gave her from his tree.
Slow Food Alameda charter member Saunders makes jams, jellies and marmalades from the freshest and most unusual fruit she can find—the delicate, delectable and endangered Blenheim apricot, for example. She launched her business, Blue Chair Fruit, a little over a year ago. “Evocative of an earlier era” is how she describes the name, and “modern nostalgia” is how she thinks of her packaging, inspired by the fruit-crate labels of the 1920s and 30s. Her jams are made in an artisanal fashion “but using modern ideas and flavors,” she says.
Saunders, who more closely resembles the vision of a kitchen goddess than one’s stereotypical image of a jam-maker, sets about halving, then quartering, then slicing the Crenshaw into wedges. “People are often surprised to find that I’m young,” the 29-year-old says, adjusting the white waist apron wrapped tightly over denim jeans. Wielding her knife with surgical precision, she cuts through the golden-green rind to reveal the succulent tangerine colored flesh. A seductively spicy aroma explodes and the mouth starts to water. She offers a bite-size chunk and the flavor bursts, delicate and yet at the same time intense.
If today were a production day, several copper basins would be bubbling in unison, each with a small quantity of fruit transforming into jam. But she’s experimenting. “When I lived in France, they made melon jam, which they don’t make here,” she says. That, of course, is going to change. She’s in the process of developing a melon jam for her cookbook, scheduled for publication in 2010.
Saunders is, in a sense, a modern-day poster-child for Slow Food Alameda. With the chapter’s support, she was selected by Slow Food USA to go as a delegate to last month’s (October 2008) Slow Food International Terre Madre in Turin, Italy. “The first I knew about it was when Vera [Ciammetti] called and told me they’d held a fundraiser for me at Pappo,” she sparkles.
Slow Food USA selected her “based on her commitment to small-scale sustainable food production” and Slow’s principles of good, clean and fair food. Especially appealing, they wrote in their commendation, were Saunders commitment to heirloom varieties, several of them endangered, and “her ability to create a successful value-added product.”
Saunders, who learned to make jam through trial and error, is inspired by the plums, the berries, the oranges—the variety and quality of the fruit she gets, for the most part directly from farmers—and by herbs she can add and flavors she can create, blending strawberry, blood orange and rosemary, for example.
She scours East Bay farmers markets for “obscure things and more than that, the best things. There are a lot of strawberries. But which are the best?”
Like many Slow Food Alameda members, Saunders—inspired by her father who never bought anything with preservatives—was Slow long before she learned about the movement. “To me it’s almost weird to put a name to it. When I was a teenager I was grinding my own cumin seeds. It’s not really new. It’s the oldest thing there is.”
Not surprisingly, she loves fruit “although I sometimes get fruited out.” She hates food foibles. “I eat everything,” she says. She does prefer that “everything” be fresh and can’t understand those complaints about home cooking being time consuming. “An omelet with good eggs and a salad takes three minutes to prepare. And cooking yourself is such a saving. You can get tremendous mileage from the head of a cauliflower.” A favorite thing after a day in the jam kitchen is to make a dessert. Like ice cream and chocolate sauce from scratch with lightly toasted almonds. And she loves that Slow Food Alameda members are “incredibly supportive. Not at all snobby. Down-to-earth and genuine about how excited they are.
“I feel such a spirit of conviviality here in Alameda. And that’s what Slow Food is about.”