BY KURT B. REIGHLEY
PHOTOS BY CLARE BARBOZA
Rebecca Staffel can’t contain her glee. “These are so pretty!” she declares, surveying simmering kettles of fleshy pink fruit. Deluxe Foods inaugural batch of Fig Preserves with Star Anise is off to a fragrant, promising start.
This was not how Staffel and her assistant, Andrew, planned to spend this particular late August afternoon. When our visit to the Greenlake commercial kitchen where she currently operates was originally scheduled, the order of the day was putting up apricots, but nature had other plans. Staffel is committed to using local, organic produce, so when City Fruit—an organization that encourages Western Washington residential fruit tree owners to grow, use, and share more of their harvest—called to offer her an embarrassment of juicy figs, that agenda changed.
Before she launched Deluxe Foods in 2010, Staffel already boasted a formidable résumé, including storied stints at Microsoft, Amazon, and as a literary agent. When she went into the boutique preserves business, she added a new talent to her skill set: juggling. Deluxe specializes in classic French-style preserves, made with minimal sugar and no commercial pectin. With nearly 20 flavors currently in rotation, from Strawberry Balsamic to Spiced Apple Butter, Staffel has to stay flexible to capture produce at peak ripeness. “The fruit is ready when it’s ready,” she shrugs.
Staffel had modest experience before she turned pro. Growing up in Oregon, her family put up strawberries, raspberries and cherries; though her parents were divorced, both sides made apple butter. Staffel’s mother, in particular, embraced the back-to-the-land movement. “There was a point in my childhood when we bought flour and sugar, and that was about it,” she recalls. However, young Rebecca wasn’t quite as enthusiastic about preserving back then. “I was more a recipient than a participant,” she qualifies. “I’m not such a whiny canner now.”
Her love affair with jam blossomed slowly over the years. As a high school exchange student in Switzerland and Italy, she fell in love with unfamiliar specimens like quince jelly and rose hip jam. In the ’90s, Staffel and her husband purchased a house near Green Lake with flourishing apple trees and grapevines on its property, and didn’t let the fruit go to waste. Trips to France in 1999 and 2000 found her returning home with suitcases stuffed with samples from the Bon Marché gourmet market in Paris. “I brought home lots of Albert Menes jams, among others.”
Then, in 2002, Mes Confitures: The Jams and Jellies of Christine Ferber was published. “Until that point, I was mostly using mid-century American cookbooks in order to skip the pectin,” she recalls. “But Ferber’s maceration techniques were the missing link! Commence serious jam experimentation.” On her first attempt at making raspberry jam without pectin, overcooking yielded a batch of impenetrable hard candy. “You couldn’t really even dig it out of the jars to eat it as a sweet.”
Taking a break from juicing and zesting, Staffel sets up a tasting buffet of Deluxe Foods wares and lets those flavors speak for themselves: Blueberry Hemingway, with accents of rum and lime; tart and earthy Strawberry Balsamic; Blackberry Tarragon; and Raspberry Thyme. For all its piquancy, her Apricot Raspberry jam has a mere four ingredients. The true vibrancy of the fruit in each sample bursts forth, supported by notes of herbs and liquor. These are versatile, grownup preserves and you wouldn’t want to compromise their dignity by pitting them against a smear of Skippy. At twelve dollars per jar, Deluxe Foods preserves are an affordable indulgence, cheaper than most bottles of good wine (and better when stirred into oatmeal).
Her first year, Staffel operated a couple days a week out of the kitchen at Picnic, a Phinney Ridge boutique, learning as she went. Determined to showcase big chunks of fruit in her product, she originally eschewed using a food processor, chopping everything by hand until a colleague convinced her that using machinery to cut up some—but not all—of each bushel could save a huge amount of time. Some flavors refused to cooperate. Despite repeated attempts, plum jelly wouldn’t set properly. Blueberry Mint was quickly retired, too. Other varieties caught on better than she ever imagined. “I thought Gingered Rhubarb wouldn’t sell,” she admits. Instead, it became one of her most popular offerings, and won the preserves category of the 2010 Good Food Awards.
In 2011, Staffel continued to roll out new concoctions, including Strawberry, Plum, and Earl Grey syrups to use in cooking and cocktails. As summer drew to a close, there were crabapples and gooseberries to preserve before turning to fruit butters. The number of retailers carrying her wares has grown rapidly; in addition to over a dozen Western Washington vendors, shops in Philadelphia and Red Lodge, Montana also stock Deluxe Foods. She still vends at local farmers markets, too, astonished but grateful when customers queue up to buy her preserves of fruits still easily purchased fresh at neighboring booths.
Life as a jam entrepreneur has honed Staffel’s sensitivity to what’s fresh as each season unfolds, but her mind is also focused on the long view for Deluxe Foods. “I’m always thinking, ‘What is this we’re doing here?'” she says. “Are we local? Regional? Regional with a national presence? In general, I operate this like a regional business with national recognition, one that I can operate for the next 20 years.” She may not stare into as many pots of warm fruit five years from now. Perhaps someone else will be responsible fpr packing. But no matter what, she won’t be entertaining offers from Smucker’s. “I did not create this business to sell it.”
Deluxe Foods jams are available at numerous local retailers, including Book Larder, Picnic, Watson Kennedy Fine Home, The Pantry at Delancey, Made in Washington, Picnic, Savour and Your Local Market. They can also be added to Full Circle deliveries, or purchased online at www.deluxe-foods.com
Kurt B. Reighley is the author of United States of Americana: Backyard Chickens, Burlesque Beauties and Handmade Bitters—A Field Guide to the New American Roots Movement. As DJ El Toro, he can be heard playing a wide variety of music every Wednesday night from 9pm to 1am on KEXP 90.3 FM and kexp.org.