Dining Reviews

Beyond the Jar

DINING tabitaHow Tabitha Stroup has built her rapidly expanding jam empire

Tabitha Stroup designs, cooks and packages her innovative and seriously appealing line of small-batch handmade jams, chutneys and condiments from a well-equipped kitchen on the Temple Beth El property in Aptos. Monday morning she and an assistant are cranking to get 500 cases of product ready for delivery. What she needs is more help and more automation, she’ll tell you.

The large industrial kitchen is perfumed with the scent of pears and spices simmering on the huge stove. Stroup uses a three-foot wooden spoon to stir small batches in 10-gallon pots. This batch will soon become Pisco Pear Butter. Stacks of spices line one end of a huge work table laden with macerating citruses and baskets of beautiful ripe pears.

“I like control,” she says with a grin over the simmering jam. “We’re reducing 30 pounds of fruit into something intense.”

In a global-sized stainless steel bowl, the makings of her chow chow jam sit waiting for their moment under her spoon. “Local wild honey, dried fruits, nuts, seeds and a good hit of bourbon,” that’s what will go into it, she explains. “The search for honey is a constant challenge—we have a shortage.”

In 1991, Stroup arrived from Fresno to work in Felton as a social worker with troubled juveniles. “I quickly realized that I was most effective when I cooked for them.” Hence it all began. Next came post-earthquake India Joze, where Stroup made her first pastries, and pestered Jozseph Schultz enough for culinary tips that she “finally got to do the potatoes.”

For the past four years, she has morphed her original venture as an entrepreneur of wine and cheese pairings—hence the Friend in Cheeses brand—and dived into jams and condiments. Her signature seasonal creations, such as Lavender Plum Jelly, Carrot Marmalade, Onion Jam, Fig & Fennel Jam are fixtures on local shelves, and across the country. Jars are trucked out each Wednesday to the East Coast, then around the West on Fridays.

“We are growing so furiously,” she admits happily. “I thrive on pressure, but, yes, things can go wrong—all the time!” Her biggest success? “That I’m here today four years later.” Her most popular product? “Pinot Cherries—it has the most diverse uses; salad dressings, Manhattans, with cheese platters. There’s no meal that could not benefit from Pinot Cherries.” Her favorite right now is Forbidden Fruit marmalade, loaded with a huge variety of citrus, from Ruby grapefruit to Meyer lemon and tangerine. Stroup believes her ascent really began when she figured out who she was—“I’m a girl who colors outside the lines. I think beyond the jar!”

Pie Chart

Four pumpkin pies were put through their paces by my panel last week. Here’s what we found. Crust: The Buttery’s was the most subtle and flakiest. Kelly’s was expertly balanced, slightly sweet. Companion Bakeshop’s had a delicious flavor, perhaps a bit saltier than the others. Gayle’s was classic in every way. All the crusts were light in texture and exactly the right thickness.

Filling-wise, Companion’s had the most brilliant color and most spiciness with appealing mouthfeel. Kelly’s was the tallest slice, custardy and very smooth, with a terrific flavor finish. Gayle’s offered moist, balanced spicing. The Buttery’s had lively flavor and outstanding balance among pumpkin, spice, sweetness, and salt. If I had to pick the best balance of all elements it would be a tie between Gayle’s and The Buttery. But my personal favorite? Companion Bakeshop. It looked, felt and tasted the most rustically accessible and handmade. And surprise! Its distinctive flavor was due to red Kuri squash! All four examples were wonderful—definitely as good as homemade—and each deserves your personal attention.

PHOTO: Tabitha Stroup and Mike Ellis, with 200 pounds of Pinot cherries.  CHIP SCHEUER

Christina Waters was born in Santa Cruz and raised all over the world (thanks to an Air Force dad), with real-world training in painting, music, winetasting, trail running, organic gardening, and teaching. She has a PhD in Philosophy, teaches in the Arts at UCSC and sings with the UCSC Concert Choir. Look for her recent memoir “Inside the Flame” at bookstores everywhere.

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