There's a certain category of foodstuff that can turn otherwise sane travelers into rabid hoarders. It might be a bootleg sausage or a contraband raw-milk cheese—so long as it's extremely delicious, and rare enough that you can't get more of it back home. Until recently, the jams of the Alsatian pastry chef Christine Ferber, which were effectively impossible to procure in the United States, fell into this category. I only knew of them through jet-setter friends who would return from France with suitcases full of carefully wrapped jars that they'd scored at the Bon Marche, Paris's chicest department store. When I asked them what the fuss was about, they would rhapsodize about "custardy" apricot—vanilla jam, and raspberry—violet preserves that were like "pureed flowers and fruit." I was intrigued.
So when I learned that Ferber's jams are now available throughout the United States from an online retailer, I promptly ordered a half-dozen jars, eager to finally give them a try. They were everything I had hoped for and more. Caramel—apple (pommes d'Alsace et caramel), a confit of julienned fruit in amber jelly, transformed a slice of wheat toast into apple pie. The meltingly soft berries in the strawberry (fraises d'Alsace) jam, eaten right off the spoon, tasted luscious and rich, as though they'd been poached in butter. A Christmas jam (confiture de Noel) mingled a bevy of dried fruits, almonds, and walnuts with spices such as cardamom and star anise in a confection that would be at home on a cheese plate. And whole sour cherries (griottes d'Alsace), with savory notes of wine, vinegar, and bitter almond, called out to be served as a condiment for meats and poultry.
I discovered that Ferber achieves these nuanced results by personally attending to each jar of jam that bears her name. She is up at 5:30 a.m. six days a week, canning preserves at her family's patisserie, Maison Ferber, in the tiny Alsatian village of Niedermorschwihr. For an operation of this reputation and scope, her methods are almost unheard of. While Ferber makes hundreds of thousands of jars of jam in close to 200 varieties each year (including collaborations with such chefs as Pierre Herme and Alain Ducasse), the fourth-generation pastry chef mostly uses fruits from nearby orchards, woods, and farms, on the same day that they have been picked. She works in small batches—no more than eight pounds of produce at a time—always in a shallow copper pot, cooking gently to preserve the fruit's color and texture.
The end products are sublime. Indeed, Ferber's jams are so special that they make wonderful gifts—though it's still difficult to resist hoarding them for oneself. A 220-gram jar costs $18, plus shipping. To order, visit thesweetpalate.com.