June Taylor crafts the kind of conserves and fruit confections that make food writers swoon.
Case in point: Amanda Hesser’s description of Taylor’s preserves. “They are unlike any commercial preserves, not simply because she uses esoteric — virtually all organic — fruits like bergamots, kadota figs, and Santa Rosa plums, but also because she cooks them in such a way that underlines their essence,” wrote Hesser in a New York Times Magazine piece. “Sugar is used not as a crutch but a tool. Her silver-lime-and-ginger marmalade has a sting to it; her grapefruit-and-Meyer-lemon marmalade is bright, concentrated and vigorously bitter.”
Don’t just take a food scribe’s word for it. My son is partial to Taylor’s candied peels — Rangpur Lime, Oro Blanco grapefruit, and Citron — popped into porridge (oatmeal), granola, or directly in the mouth for a bittersweet treat.
Taylor has practiced the art and craft of preserving for more than 20 years. An avid researcher, she steeps herself in scholarly works on food preservation history. The 59-year-old runs her business from The Still-Room, a light-filled kitchen and storefront space on the industrial end (not the chi-chi shopping end) of 4th Street in West Berkeley.
All her products are hand-cut, cooked in small batches with minimal sugar and no commercial pectin, and then poured, packed, and labeled by humans. (Taylor has two kitchen assistants, Magali Hernandez and Dianey Jimenez.) Color and a connection to nature is important to Taylor, who cites environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy as an influence. She’s also enamored with a Japanese aesthetic and The Still-Room, dotted with reminders from the outside world, has a distinctly Japanese feel too.
A working-class Brit, raised in government-subsidized housing, where her father grew redcurrants, blackcurrants, and salad vegetables in the summer, root vegetables in the winter, and potatoes in the driveway, she met an American in her travels and packed up and moved Stateside following a whirlwind romance. She recalls arriving and wondering where she’d buy underwear in this unfamiliar place.
A self-taught cook — Home Economic classes in her native England, where she learned fundamental culinary techniques, followed by brief stints baking at Berkeley’s since shuttered Santa Fe Bar and Grill (where Jeremiah Tower was the top chef), and Oakland’s acclaimed Oliveto’s — she decided she wanted to work for herself and turned her attention to jam making in 1987.
Today, Taylor is one of the country’s most respected artisan preserve makers. In the winter she focuses on citrus and marmalades, in the summer production shifts to stone fruit and berry conserves. She also makes fruit cheeses (a fruit paste that pairs well with cheese or green tea), fruit syrups, and other specialty items, which are sold at her shop, online, at select stores, and the San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market.
She strives to revive heirloom and forgotten fruits, sources from local, organic farmers, and creates flavors by infusing flowers and herbs from her own garden, in a nod to earlier preserving traditions. Little is wasted: Fruit seeds and citrus membranes are used to make pectin, citrus peels are candied. All this attention to detail and effort is reflected in the price of her products: Marmalades run around $14 for an 8-ounce jar, conserves cost $13, a 3.5-ounce bag of peels $12.
Taylor, who also teaches hands-on preserving classes, lives in Rockridge with her photographer husband Perry Small. We chatted this week at The Still-Room while a batch of Meyer lemons bubbled away on the stove.
What’s behind the name The Still-Room?
It’s the term used for a pantry in old English manor houses where beverages were made and preserves stored.
How would you describe your approach to preserving?
Minimalist, clean, fruit-forward. Experimental, playful, with a modern sensibility but rooted in tradition and history.
What do you think of the new generation of jammers making a splash right now with the D.I.Y. trend?
I’m delighted. After 20 years of preserving I’ve developed my own style and I’m thrilled that so many women — and I’d like to see more men — are developing their own. I applaud their support for small, local family farmers. There’s nothing new about preserving, it’s an age-old craft that people have practiced for centuries, often out of necessity.
When you first arrived in America what did you notice about the food?
The portion size and the waste. It stunned me.
Why did you move from the Berkeley Farmers’ Market to the San Francisco Farmers’ Market?
I started in Berkeley with just three products and I was here for eight years and people were tremendously supportive. But since it was Berkeley there was also a lot of “shoulds.” People would offer their opinions — about sugar, eating raw, the price of my preserves, whatever it was — and there was no way to escape. I thought I’d find a sophisticated crowd in San Francisco with the disposable income to buy my products, which have a European sensibility, and I have.
Do you have local food artisans and purveyors you admire?
Alex Hozven, around the corner from me, at the Cultured Pickle Shop, and Minh Tsai of Hodo Soy Beanery, who sells at the farmers’ markets, are kindred spirits. My friend food stylist and painter Pouke Halpern brings an artist’s eye to her work, which is unique, beautiful, and can be seen here and abroad.
I like Star Grocery, it’s a lovely place to buy food — it’s a real shop not a store — and they carefully choose their products and display them thoughtfully. It’s a family run business and I’m happy to be part of that family. I enjoy stopping by Far Leaves Tea; I’ll drink tea with anyone, it’s a wonderful way to relax, and this is a peaceful place to visit. And I like Crixa Cakes, it has a European feel; they bake goods with rose water and nuts. You won’t see a chocolate-chip cookie in sight.
I visited Japan last year. I’d like to go back. I admire how the Japanese translate nature into their fabric, fashions, paper, pottery, tea, and cuisine. I eat a mostly Japanese diet now. I love what they do with confectionery and how they work with sugar and I want to learn more about that. I’m segueing into a a new phase, I’m at a juncture right now. I’m not sure what’s next but I love to explore.
The Still-Room Shop: 2207 4th Street, open Tues.-Sat. 11-4. Taylor’s marmalade making class for January 15 is full, find out more about upcoming classes here.
Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and become a fan of Lettuce Eat Kale on Facebook.