If there really were an actual London Borough of Jam, would you live in it? Perhaps become a mayor for the day, with exclusive responsibility for Breakfast Legislation? One can but dream… but wouldn’t it be brilliant if all London boroughs were named after food? We’d be heading to the London Borough of Cake right now…
The mayor of this particular London Borough of Jam – a tiny, artisanal east London-based jam company – is Lillie O’Brien. A friendly, chatty Aussie with a vibrant personality, she moved from Melbourne six years ago, and worked as St. John Bread & Wine restaurant’s pastry chef for four years. She says: "When I got to my ‘30s, I didn’t want to be a chef or restaurateur any more, so I was thinking: what could I do [that was days rather than evenings]?".
She had always loved making jam, so embarked upon a career as a jam maker, and has a small jammery (did we just make up that word?) in Lower Clapton, Hackney. She makes jams all week at home with the radio on – "my kitchen is like a jam factory", she says – and sells them in her nearby weekend-only shop. The jams are made in a single copper pan that yields about 15 jars at a time. She explains: "The more fruit you put into a pan, the more the jam has a cooked sugary taste. So I put in less: it cooks quicker, and has a fresher flavour".
They come in unconventional, regularly-changing seasonal flavours, such as navel orange and vodka, Seville orange and camomile, and bergamot marmalade. They have a high fruit content, with a ratio of 60% fruit to 40% sugar. The bestsellers are figs with earl grey tea, beautifully perfumed amalfi lemon and vanilla, and raspberry and liquorice.
Her personal favourites include the delicious plum and hibiscus, and rhubarb and cardamom – which we tasted in doughnuts that she gets from the St John restaurant and fills with different flavours. On our visit, these ‘St John doughnuts’ were, unsurprisingly, flying off the shelves.
She doesn’t hide the jams’ gorgeous jewel colours by sticking a label on the jars: she simply ties a hand-written label containing the date and batch number with a string, as she prefers this look. As she’s a one-woman business who not only makes, but also delivers, all the jams herself, she currently can’t produce enough to meet the demand. She’s looking for a larger industrial kitchen unit to increase production and employ assistants, so that she can finally take some time off.
O’Brien buys all her fruits locally, and from the New Covent Garden and New Spitalfields markets. The Seville oranges are from the suppliers at Leila’s shop in Shoreditch, and the rhubarb is from a nearby greengrocer. Her stark, terracotta-tiled, rustic-looking shop is attractively festooned with bunches of dried bay leaves from a friend’s tree, and fennel picked along the train lines in Hackney. (Who knew that the exquisite-tasting fennel pollen – available in expensive, dusty little jars in many delis – could be so freely foraged in London?) She uses these and other herbs, such as headily perfumed lemon verbena, in her jams.
So what’s with the name? She laughs and says: "I went to the Hackney Archives with a friend and we looked at a lot of books, but couldn’t find anything appropriate. Then inspiration came when looking at a book in the Hackney Library. The stamp at the front said ‘London Borough of Hackney’, so we thought, why not ‘London Borough of Jam’? Our original logo was designed to look like a book stamp."
Other than her own shop, the jams are available in several other delis (check the website for a full list of stockists) – but the shop itself sells much more than jams. There are a number of beautiful, carefully curated products such as kitchen equipment, jars, carafes, aprons, tea towels and sumptuously designed food magazines.
In fact, the space is a homage to small, local food and drink producers whose products O’Brien loves herself: Rubies in the Rubble chutneys, made from fruit going to waste in the Spitalfields Market, coffee beans locally roasted by the Roasting Shed, kimchi hot sauce made by a friend, Hackney-made Square Root sodas, Stellacello grapefruit liqueur made in Bethnal Green, and beers from Pressure Drop, Partizan and Five Points breweries.
Additionally, she sells a few other own-made items, such as chutney prepared from too-fizzy-to-drink local ale, ‘bacon butty sauce’, granola, and chocolate-dipped crystallised citrus peel. As someone who loves making things at home and therefore encourage others to do so, she also sells beer- and cheese-making kits.
There are no plans to open beyond the weekend, however. "This is like a fantasy shop", O’Brien acknowledges. "We sell luxuries, special items, gifts." And so it is we discover that the London Borough of Jam is populated not only by one passionate jam maker with fabulous jams and an interesting story, but several amazing local producers whose stories have yet to be told. Who wouldn’t want to be its mayor, even if only for a day?
London Borough of Jam Shop, 51d Chatsworth Road, Lower Clapton, Hackney E5 0LH.