Thursday, 3 May 2018

Christine Ferber - Open Day at the World's Greatest Jam Factory

It is said, and said often, that Christine Ferber makes the best jams on Earth.  And who am I to disagree with the F&B teams at hotels such as the Georges V and Crillon in Paris, the Connaught in London and the Four Seasons Hong Kong, which offer her artisanal conserves at breakfast?  Or the legendary French patissier Pierre Hermé (himself an Alsatian), who stocks them at his boutiques in Paris?

The Jam Shrine at Maison Ferber
This is an episode from the happy times.  Picture a chilly Alsatian Sunday afternoon in very late autumn.  The distant skies were thick with rolling clouds, and the peaks of the Vosges were stark white, blanketed so thick with snow as if it were icing sugar blitzed by a demented baker.  On the road, cars returning from the mountains were similarly caked with  the cold stuff.  The Executioner, the Wanker Banker and I had spent the morning tasting the Domaine Albert Mann's excellent 2016 vintage with its owners Maurice and Marie-Claire Barthelmé, before heading to lunch at the Restaurant L'Alchémille, down a back road of suburban Kaysersberg.  Its chef-owner, Jérôme Jaegle, had been anointed as one of the rising stars of Alsatian gastronomy and, as of some 11 months earlier, had a maiden Michelin star to adorn his chiselled jawline.

L'Alchemille's Foie Gras and Pain d'Epice
In between mouthfuls of Jaegle's beautiful foie gras terrine and pain d'epice crumbs, Marie-Claire mentioned that Christine Ferber was having her annual open day today.  Known as the "Jam Fairy" for her famous jams and preserves, Christine famously works 100-hour, six-day weeks at her factory-boutique in Niedermorschwihr.  The following extract from a 2013 New York Times article says all you need to know about her and her perfectionist approach to her craft:

"For the griotte jam, one of her first kinds and a favorite, she insists that the stems must be on the cherries when they arrive. 'If the stalk is pulled off, the hole it leaves allows the fruit to oxidate, diminishing its quality,' she says. Ms. Ferber rolls each cherry between two fingers to squeeze the stone out gently, noting that an automated pitter would puncture the fruit and diminish the preservation of the finished jam".

So when Maurice suggested that we could head over to Ferber's after dessert for its annual portes ouvertes (open day), I kind of lost all perspective.  Imagine that, one day a year and we, a bunch of Singapore residents, happened to be in Alsace of all places, on that very day!  With apologies to chef Jaegle, the rest of the meal flew by in a bit of a blur (for me, anyway!).  We rushed out while pretending not to, piled into Maurice's trusty Pug and made our way over to Maison Ferber!

A queue around twenty-five strong greeted us outside the corner shoplot, so we waited in the bitter cold for our turn through the door.  In the hospitable French tradition, children (I can only assume they were relatives of the Ferbers or their staff) were handing out vin chaud (hot, spiced wine) and rich, thick hot chocolate to the patient folk.  I gratefully accept a steaming cup of chocolat chaud, and then a second, and then a third, before I am finally given the all-clear to enter the Temple of Jams!

I'm going to set out the remainder of this post  through photos in the order in which they were taken as we weaved our way along the Jam Factory, with some comments on each little vignette.  My thanks to the Executioner for filling in the gaps in my photographic record.

(L to R): The Crowd at Maison Ferber's Open Day; Bruno Ferber and Assistant Handing Out Foie Gras to Children

The narrow entrance spills out into a tiled work area, functionally lit with white fluorescent tubes.  We are each given a lined plastic tray with a cup and absolute freedom to walk around and make smallchat with the staff.   Staffers roam around with more plastic jugs of hot chocolate and mulled wine, spreading some Christmas cheer and dispelling the bitter chill of winter.

In the far corner in the glasses, Maurice tells me, is Christine's brother Bruno, who is in charge of the savoury / delicatessen takeaway side of the kitchen.  Here he is handing out a slice of foie gras to a girl of no more than kindergarten age.  I didn't snap the next scene, but as you would expect, she gobbled it up happily.  

Marbre de foie gras: Layered Duck and Goose Foie Gras.

As we got closer, we got a good shot of Bruno and his assistant hard at work.  Here are two terrines of foie gras: on the left, a marbre of duck and goose livers layered upon the other, and the one on the right just 100% goose.  It was absolutely stunning; I couldn't say it was better than the foie gras I had for lunch just a couple of hours back, nor even better than the marbre which was served at Aux Trois Poissons, but it is superb.  I would take some back with me if my hotel room had a kitchenette to prep it and do it justice.  Simply gorgeous.

You might wonder why I am featuring foie gras so heavily in this post, almost as if I am deliberately taunting a certain sub-section of the population which believes that foie gras is evil and inhumane.  First of all, Alsace is the home of the terrine de foie gras, that unctuous, creamy delicacy that heralds the Christmas season across all of France.  In fact, so entrenched is foie gras in the Alsatian culinary tradition that you will never see an Alsatian cuisine restaurant that doesn't serve it  throughout the year; even the aforementioned Aux Trois Poissons, an avowed seafood specialist, has to concede and feature a marbre de foie gras on its menu.  

Secondly, yes, I am taunting the wowsers.

(L to R): Smoked Scottish Salmon and Local Lake Trout; Chicken Liver Pate Smooshed onto Sourdough Slices

After the foie gras extravaganza, how do chicken liver pâtés stack up?  They don't, even though on any other day, I would have been totally happy to have them as they are still delicious and undoubtedly cost a fair bit less than the all-liver terrines.  The smoked Scottish salmon (Label Rouge, as my server informs me) is rich and oily, the local trout is leaner, more subtle, more elegant with less smoke.  Both excellent.

Dark Chocolate Pralines

As we move along a narrow corridor into the sweet section,  I spy a tray of dark chocolates in the corner.  The rectangles are filled with dark chocolate ganache and are excellent.  The ones in the foreground are shortbread-like biscuits coated with dark chocolate, which while good are not quite in the same league.

It occurs to me at this point that nowhere along this path are there any packets of vacuum packed foie gras or dainty little praline boxes for you to purchase.  No one has tried to foist a price list into my hand, or encourage me to buy anything, even when I praise their product to the skies.  No, they just keep smiling and talking, happily doling out generous samples to their guests on this chilly day.

(L to R): Strawberry Sorbet; Berewaecka.

The sorbet is excellent, not overly sweet and tasting of real fruit, and is a gentle introduction to the sweet section of the kitchen.  It also makes me realise how ambient the temperature is within the factory, and that yes, I am eating ice-cream while it's zero degrees outside.  

Berewaecka, ah  yes, where do we start with this Alsatian fruit bread?  I must admit, and this may come as a shock to my friends in Alsace, that I hate the stuff.  It is the Vegemite of Alsace (and I actually like Vegemite!), and I can't take more than a couple of nibbles without gagging at its sticky, goopy, chewy, dried-fruity over-the-top richness.  The Executioner is making googly-eyes at the sliced-up loaf and tells me to remind him to buy a few loaves to take back.  I just ignore him.

Traditional Alsatian Zimsterne and Macaroon

I call them macaroons here because they aren't yet sandwiched with buttercream to make the more familiar Parisian macaron.  These are perfectly pleasant, although after having had three desserts at L'Alchemille, my daily sugar threshold is about to get smashed.

Service with a Smile!

One of the main reasons I love Alsace is the sheer hospitality of its inhabitants.  Maybe it's just the natural warmth of the more relaxed rural folk, but nowhere in the French countryside have I ever been made to feel more welcome than in Alsace, and the staff at Ferber were no different.  Full credit to them for putting up with the freeloaders with such patience and good humour.

Christine Ferber Herself

I catch a glimpse of the woman herself.  She wasn't doing much face-to-face with her guests that day (or at least not while I was there), more marshalling production of the various goodies to be given out.  But she had a smile and a few nice words with Maurice and Marie-Claire, who are good friends.  In fact, they share a hydraulic fruit press, which Maurice and his brother Jacky use to crush the small parcels of botrytised grapes for their brilliant SGN wines (the small parcels brought in daily are too small to be crushed effectively using conventional means). During the rest of the year, Christine calls upon it to crush fruits for her jams.  When we visited the Mann cellar in the cold of late November, the press was covered and sitting in the corner, waiting to be called in to service!

Finally, we walk back into the shopfront, laid out beautifully with a glass display of traiteur goods and of course, the Jam Shrine at the top of this post.  This being Christmas, a lot of Yuletide kitsch (and this being Alsace, they know their kitsch very well!) and packaged gifts are available, though the specialty cakes that I see on the Barthelme's Instagram feed are nowhere to be seen.  Even the jam flavours range from the traditional to the innovative, from the various berries, plums and grapes for which Alsace is justly famous, to "Chocolat 64% par Jean-Paul Hevin".  I buy a selection of jams, while the Executioner makes good on his threat and cleans the place out of the diabolical berewaecka.

As we trudged out of the Jam Factory with our wares, we walked past a Citroen weighed down with Vosgien snow.  Maybe it was all the sugar he had consumed in the afternoon, but Maurice actually ran over to the Citroen, rolled some snow in his hands and threw the snowball at the Wanker Banker!  The Wanker retaliated of course, and I scuttled to shelter behind Maurice's (snowless) car while the battle played out.  A perfect, laughter-filled finish to a magical day. 


The jams?  Ah yes.  Well, it was a very clever ploy NOT to dole out free jam samples, and showcase everything else they were making and would like to sell more of.

In short, flavours were brilliant, with a strong underlying base palate of stone fruit which tasted to me like green apple.  It was only later that I discovered that Christine uses only natural apple pectin to set her jams; I don't know if that influences the flavour but the green apple was unmistakable as a canvas, with the named fruit component more of the focus, the foreground of the painting.  I especially liked the muscat grape, Alsatian strawberry and raspberry and violet.  They did not seem as set as commercial jams, and maybe that's also due to the use of natural pectin, but they could also have suffered from too much temperature variation from 12 hours in freezing temperatures in my suitcase.  At 9 euros a jar, they were expensive but totally delicious and worth the splurge.

In summary, Ferber's is a magical place for lovers of fine food, whether savoury or sweet.  If you are in Alsace, make sure it's on your list of places to visit: your waistline and hips may regret it but your palate will not.

And if it happens to be open day, even better!!!  

18 rue des Trois Épis 
68230 Niedermorschwihr (around 20 minutes drive northwest of Colmar)
Tel : +33 3 89 27 05 69

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