Ruth Wardwell’s Top of the Hill Jam
May 23, 2017 11:00AM
By Jordan Venema
Story by Jordan Venema
Photos courtesy of Top of the Hill Jam
When most people say they’re in a jam, they usually mean they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. But if talking about Ruth Wardwell’s jam, then there’s probably no place they’d rather be.
Owner and CEJ (Chief Executive Jammer) of Top of the Hill Jams, Wardwell has been making fresh jams since 2003 “because I needed something to be on my table to start the farmers market season. So I started with strawberries, because I needed something on my table at that time so I would keep my spot in the farmers market,” explains Wardwell.
Granted, that was when she began jamming professionally, though the 61-year-old used to make jams for her children while they were growing up.
“Yeah, I probably watched my mother make it, and when I had a family I made it, and then I picked the trade back up when I wanted to do it for a living, and I never realized how it would grow.”
Wardwell isn’t talking about the trees on her two-acre farm between Reedley and Kingsburg, which she uses for her homemade jams, but referring to the marketable success of her jams.
There were times during the recession that other farmers at local markets struggled to sell their wares, but somehow, the jams always, well, jammed. And for somebody who has been in the farmers market business for 33 years, Wardwell is something of an expert on what sells and what doesn’t.
“My top farmers market is Visalia’s farmers market,” says Wardwell, but her jams, jellies and marmalades do well just about anywhere, much like they go well with just about anything.
Much of the success of Wardwell’s jams can be attributed to local sourcing and simple ingredients.
“I have three or four ingredients in my jam: sugar, fruit, pectin and lemon juice. That’s it,” says Wardwell. As for store-bought jams with so many hard-to-read ingredients, “well, if you don’t know what they are, your body doesn’t, either.”
Most of Wardwell’s 31 jams are made with ingredients from her own farm or local farmers markets.
“Our trees are specifically planted for the jam, like one quince tree and certain kinds of peaches that make the best peach jam, and the fig tree, the lemons, the orange trees that make the different kinds of marmalade, things like that,” says Wardwell.
Which leads to the question: what is the difference between a jam and jelly anyway, let alone marmalade? “OK, let’s start with jelly,” Wardwell is quick to answer. “Jelly is just the juice of the fruit, jam is the whole body of the fruit, and marmalade has the rind of a citrus fruit in it. This isn’t the first time I’ve explained that to people, but it’s fun to educate people on those type of things.”
To make jelly, explains Wardwell, you take a grape, for example, clean it, cook it, run it through a sieve, run that through a filter, then through another filter, and run that through another filter and then you’re ready to make jelly.
As for the consistency of her jams and jellies, the answer is pectin. “It’s a natural product, a derivative of mainly either citrus or apple, and you can buy it in the store and add to your jam when you’re cooking.”
It may be a simple process, but Wardwell has found that despite California’s agricultural roots, the state as a whole hasn’t, ahem, preserved the art of jamming.
“I’ll go to a different state and an Ace Hardware will have a whole, huge room of canning supplies, whereas California only has two shelves,” explains Wardwell. “It’s a good question why not in California, but I think it’s because most people are urban now.”
In other words, we’ve lost the skill but not the taste for jam – which surprises Wardwell, because it’s a pretty simple process. “Basically it’s just going back to the Ball book on canning that’s sold at any Ace Hardware and just treating that like the bible on canning.”
Other than that, Wardwell says with a laugh, “I just went by the instructions on the pectin box. If you can read, you can make jam.”
Wardwell probably sells herself short, because while jam might require few ingredients, and steps simple enough to follow if you can read, it requires a patience and perseverance for which not everyone is suited.
“Grape jelly is a labor of love,” she agrees. “If I counted up the hours I wouldn’t be making much money, but it sure makes some people happy.”
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