Growing up on a Vermont farm, Seattle jam maker V Smiley hated canning.
She recalls “weekends of humid, sticky work, furious in pace because of a sale on peaches at the market or all our tomatoes ripened at once. I hated peeling tomato and peach skins. If I could go back in time, I’d tell my dad to buy nectarines. They’re much easier to work with.”
Still, those sticky weekends imparted an appreciation for preserving the seasonal bounty, which she has made into a side business, V Smiley Preserves. Her fascinating flavors and use of local ingredients have led to extraordinary products you can find on the menu at The Whale Wins and on sale at the West Seattle and Madrona farmers markets and a growing list of local shops like Metropolitan Market and The London Plane. Smiley also sells subscriptions at vsmileypreserves.com.
Her interest in jam started as a hobby when she landed her first job on a strawberry farm in New Haven, Vermont. She continued perfecting her recipes after moving to Seattle and working as a cook at Sitka & Spruce.
“Preserves were the calm counterpart to line work,” she says. Later, working in the kitchen at Theo Chocolate, she learned the ropes of product development, food production, and marketing, and came across Rachel Saunders’ The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook—a veritable bible for jam makers.
“I wanted to start a side project—not necessarily a jam company, but a way for me to cook a lot of jam, learn the subject in depth, and share the product with friends,” Smiley says.
But Smiley was determined to make her jam with honey, a departure from traditional recipes using sugar. Though she had read it would add an unwelcome flavor, she was drawn to the local availability of honey and enjoyed its biological link to fruit flowers. “But would anyone who knew way more about cooking than me think me a fool for jamming with honey?” says Smiley, who studied writing and art history in college.
She spent a year and a half making 40 different jams and marmalades, each with honey. She chooses fruit that pairs well with honey, and considers texture and pectin content when coming up with flavors like pear, Persian lime, and vanilla marmalade. She makes every ingredient—for example, candied ginger—from scratch, with the exception of the liquor component in the liqueurs she sometimes incorporates. Smiley also sources close to home: “Except for California citrus, all the produce comes from Washington State, is often organic, and always sustainably farmed,” she says.
When she first got going, Smiley found support in Renee Erickson and Marie Rutherford, chef de cuisine at The Whale Wins, where Smiley now works. “They knew I was at home making stupid amounts of jam. I brought in a variety of flavors for Marie and then-sous chef Bobby Palmquist [now chef of Barnacle] to taste,” she says. “It was winter at the time, but when spring came they offered to put my apricot jam on the menu with Little Brown Farm chèvre. Renee and her partners are very supportive of the entrepreneurial spirit.”
Citizen Food features willful adventurers in food culture—who typically have a day job outside a kitchen. Know someone who fits that bill? If so, send info to email@example.com.