Pastry chefs are not generally regarded as the muses of the culinary world. We're supposed to add grace notes to a meal, but the big thinking is supposed to come from the savory side of the house. Except, as I discovered recently, for a few like French pastry chef Christine Ferber, known by the culinary cognoscenti as the queen of confitures.
I met Ferber last month when she was in Chicago for what has become an end-of- summer culinary ritual in the city, her three-day course on preserving at the French Pastry School of Chicago. It was perfect timing. The imminent disappearance of apricots from the farmers market and the arrival of plums had just given me my annual jam-making nudge.
Once a labor to be endured solemnly with the prospect of Christmas presents completed by early fall, this gift-making enterprise had been transformed last year when I became acquainted with Ferber's cookbooks. The exquisiteness of her flavor combinations, her respect for the produce, and the simplicity of her technique - you can get rid of that old steam cauldron for boiling the jars - have made preserving a season of its own.
Still relatively unknown in the United States outside of the culinary profession, this serene native of Alsace, who is the author of France's definitive works on preserving, has many admirers in her own country. Her preserves, used by Michelin-starred restaurants, ultra-luxe hotels, and trendy retail establishments in Paris and Japan, have inspired an almost religious following among chefs even if Ferber is not a household name among the Ball jar crowd.
That's probably because she's busy in the tiny village of Niedermorschwihr, just west of Colmar, turning out over a million dollars a year in jams, all with hand-cut fruit that she selects personally, and all with jars that she closes personally. Ferber's friend Lea Linster, the only woman ever to win the coveted Bocuse D'Or international cooking competition, put it simply, "Christine Ferber makes jam like a mother does."
The Artisan vs. The Profiteer
These preserves - whether it's her strawberry-balsamic or her blueberry-Pinot Noir-licorice - contain only first choice produce. They're not Ferber's way of wringing profit from bruised or over-ripe fruit that can't be used for the pastries and chocolates she sells at Maison Ferber, the town's only patisserie and chocolaterie.
Nearby orchards supply virtually all of Ferber's fresh fruit with one rhubarb provider completely dedicated to her. Ferber prepares everything in small batches to retain the natural flavor and texture of the fruit. Ferber's relentless commitment to high-quality, small-scale production is a personal mission, not a political statement. She has no ties to the Slow Food movement even with its roots in nearby Italy.
Whatever its impetus, Ferber's economically improbable preserving operation has kept her out of the limelight in this country. She cannot afford to interrupt her grueling 18-hour days for media requests, as we discovered last summer when my colleagues and I tried to film her for a documentary on the best pastry chefs in France. Ferber takes calls only on Sundays.
Otherwise she can be found in her cramped, low ceilinged kitchen, beside her cutting board peeling and preparing fruit, surrounded by a staff gently stirring hammered copper preserving pans, often two at a time. There's a calm that hovers over the kitchen as she carefully inspects each vegetable or piece of fruit, raising it periodically to her nose to check on the ripeness.
This does not leave Christine Ferber much time for travel or extra-curricular teaching. When she does teach, her classes attract a mix of culinary professionals - everyone from hotel-based chefs to cottage industrialists. Ferber's recent class in Chicago was no exception, with a roster ranging from a three-person Orlando Ritz-Carlton delegation to local pastry chef Elizabeth Madden, who is on her second round in as many years. It's the devotion of acolytes like Madden, whose Rare Bird Preserves are an un-self-conscious homage to Ferber, that helps prompt the frequent lament that the class is impossible to get into.
The Pilgrims of Preserves
Most classes like Ferber's start with a recipe. Hers starts with a story, almost a meditation. Although chefs itch to get their hands dirty, there's something about Ferber's idyll of French village life and her unlikely rise to culinary fame in the 1990s that enraptures students.
But her widely-used moniker, the queen of jams, I have since come to discover, hardly describes her influence on contemporary gastronomy, especially on the Chicago culinary scene. Even when the most celebrated pastry chefs in the world come to town, few attract attention outside the pastry world like Christine Ferber, author of numerous books on preserving.
Not until we headed out to Chicago's Green City Market, the city's only local and sustainable farmers' market, did I really encounter the full force of her influence. We made it through a few stands in anonymity, long enough for Ferber to assess (positively) the donut peaches at Hillside Orchards and the berries from Mick Klug.
However, when we stopped to examine the shallots and red onions, which Ferber uses for her famous caramelized shallot confit, she was spotted by international relations scholar-turned pastry chef Dobra Bielinski. The Polish owner of Delightful Pastries didn't waste time offering - in French - to volunteer her services just to get a glimpse of Ferber's operation back home. She was not the last to make such an offer, which is a non-starter, Ferber regretfully informs her following, owing to strict labor regulations in the area.
But it was Paul Virant, the executive chef at Vie Restaurant in Western Springs, who, interrupting his market demonstration to greet her before she headed out, captured how far her ideas have traveled beyond the pastry kitchen.
"Christine Ferber's influence is almost everywhere present on our menu from the charcuterie plate to the desserts," Virant told me. "Her aigre-doux have opened a whole new category," Vie said, referring to Ferber's sweet and savory products like blueberry preserves with read onions in Xeres vinegar. Named by Food and Wine one of the "Best New Chefs" of 2007, Virant had taken "the class" in 2002.
The Cultural Capital of Confitures
Nothing in Ferber's village of 585 would suggest it is the cultural capital of confitures. The town is a classic "flowered town" in the heart of Alsace's great wine growing region - the area that produces the country's great Rieslings. Maison Ferber, which began as the town's epicerie, is hidden in plain view on the town's tiny main street.
Only the shelves of jars containing exotic combinations of the region's produce, such as rhubarb with acacia honey and rosemary, provide any hint that this at times barely audible fourth generation pastry chef presides below over a staff of thirty creating confitures for Paris' fashionable Hotel Crillon, the revered restaurateur Alain Ducasse, and pastry trend-setter Pierre Herme.
Ferber, who bridles at the narrowness of the title "jam-maker," is quick to remind her preserving classes that her celebrity as captor of fresh produce's peak flavors was entirely accidental. Sent by her family to Belgium to study pastry, Ferber returned to France and promptly won a national pastry competition, which secured her an otherwise difficult-to- obtain job in the pastry shop of Lucien Peltier, then considered one of the best in Paris.
But when she returned to Niedermorschwihr to join the family enterprise, Ferber had to rein in her ambition. Clients from outside the village were rare and though her father could sense her eagerness to expand the limited offerings of the epicerie, her mother made it amply clear that they were still in charge. "In this house, I make the jam," Ferber's mother declared, reminding her dreamy daughter that everyone in their rural village had his own garden.
Ferber made her first jams in the early 1980s as decoration for the shop, refusing initially to sell them. The store already stocked jam from industrial producers like Bonne Maman. Encouraged by her childhood friend Herme, referred to by Vogue as the Picasso of pastry, to expand her jam-making, Ferber faced an enduring wall of opposition from her father who regarded the fledgling jam operation as money loser.
However, since she could fit it into her daily schedule without conflict - mornings were reserved for pastry, afternoons for jam - Ferber persevered. No one ever imagined that even as sales at many patisseries around France languished, Maison Ferber would enjoy steady growth or that one day the small shop would have annual revenues well into the millions, with jam accounting for over half.
Ferber has stuck to her approach even against the advice of her brother, who oversees the catering operation at Maison Ferber. Despite his encouragement to "produce, produce, produce," Christine Ferber has steadfastly refused to grow beyond the point where she can select and hand-cut fruit locally. She does not worry about "missing the train," as he once warned.
Christine Ferber calls her jams her "ballet rose," done from passion more than for money. Invoking her former Parisian mentor whom she was surprised to stumble on working with the dough rather than the finishing touches of his products, the languorous Ferber confides that the further she gets from her first dozen jars of jam, the more she hungers to stay close to the fruit.