We Be Jammin': Little Bay Jams' Inspired Canning
“What’s on your toast?” is the slogan Anna and Tyler Keyes will embroider across the backs of t-shirts promoting their company, Little Bay Jams.
Entering the cottage industry whirl two years ago, this Orleans couple launched their dynamic line of jams at their town’s Saturday morning farmers’ market. Ever since, their trusty canning pot has seldom had a chance to cool, with the pair processing jam on the average of five nights a week during the market’s 28-week season.
Fans of Little Bay’s wares know that the early bird gets the jam. Frequent buyers arrive clutching sacks of the jars and metal rings that will earn them a discount on future purchases. They scan the display, sample a recipe or two, and listen as Tyler and Anna describe the week’s creations. What culinary adventures will the Keyes take us on this week?
Names like Monkey Butter, Mojito and Ginger Sunrise will draw you in. One would be challenged to find a more diverse selection of sweet and savory jams.
From all accounts, there is no end in sight to their creativity. The Keyes have an enchanting love of flavors that many cooks would shy away from, seeking out cardamom, blood oranges, thyme, balsamic vinegar, sage, mangos and fresh vanilla bean. The pair incorporates the fragrant herbs and spices that many of us grow or purchase but never actually use, fashioning concoctions that are as exquisite to look at as they are delicious to spoon into. Sage Wine Jelly, Raspberry Rhubarb and Nectarine Cardamom Ginger are a few that glimmer in the morning sunlight, begging to be paired with a slab of sharp cheese and a warm baguette.
“Little Bay’s roots, though,” says Anna Keyes, “actually began not with jam, but with pickles.”
Anna grew up with parents who canned. “It always seemed like cukes and onions were being chopped at two am under the cover of darkness. My mom absolutely makes the most wonderful pickled cucumbers.”
This subversive pickling activity was bound to rub off, and it did. But to this day, Anna shies away from trying her mom’s recipe. “Hers are just the best, so we’ve pickled beets, onions, summer squash, zucchini and just about everything else, except cukes. We’ve jarred beans with dill seed, and done a French-inspired Jardinière of assorted spring vegetables. I adore pickling vegetables,” says Anna.
Tyler came on board the jam train when he and Anna took a beginner’s course at the Green Briar Nature Center in Sandwich. Making their first solo batch of something like cranberry strawberry orange jam was “really fun, and from there we wanted to put up different stuff, so we kept on going,” says Tyler.
Even after making and giving jars and jars of it away at the holidays, their mutual passion for jam could not be stilled. Buying all those supplies however, was getting costly. “We had never actually frequented it, but learned that becoming vendors at the Orleans Farmers’ Market could be an option for us,” says Tyler.
Little Bay Jams became an approved vendor for the 2011 season and did well from the start. “We were very pleased with the response we got from the community and the other vendors,” says Tyler. That summer, with their first ever entry, they garnered a ribbon at the Barnstable County Fair.
“Jam may not be health food, but ours is a wholesome alternative to the types many people eat, and at least you can pronounce all of our ingredients,” says Anna. Little Bay uses only sugar and occasionally a bit of honey or fruit juice, but no artificial sweeteners.
Sugar is almost always required to make traditional jam because it preserves the mixture and helps it to jell. The challenge of sugar-free versions is to use ingredients that have enough natural pectin in them to achieve the right texture; cranberries, apples, berries and, surprisingly, citrus fruits like limes, hit the mark.
“There’s a real science to jam,” says Tyler, “it’s a chemical reaction.” A book enthusiast, he recommends the Ball guides to canning and preserving, put out by the jar manufacturers. “They‘re beginner’s tutorials, but you’ll know plenty when you’re done reading.” Anna is less interested in the details of why it works, but both know that keeping their canning practices safe and reputable is paramount.
Tyler outlines the basics of a hot water bath recipe: prepare/cook ingredients; ladle the hot mixture into just-sterilized jars; add lids and tighten rings around jars; cover jars with hot water in the canner; and boil for the time required by each specific recipe, usually about ten minutes.
Anna and Tyler explain how the essential “seal” happens, almost in unison, completing each other’s thoughts. During the boiling period the small amount of air that’s in the headspace between the surface of the product and the lid escapes through the lid’s rubber liner. A natural vacuum is created and the trademark “ping” sound of successful canning occurs as the button in the center of the lid becomes depressed.
“It’s kind of like the sound you hear when you open a new jar of spaghetti sauce,” says Anna. “We count the sounds according to the number of jars in the batch, and all the jars are checked visually.”
“We got one, there goes another,” says Tyler. “It’s musical. Each product has a slightly different tone. Some go ping, some go plunk.“
The name Little Bay Jams was inspired by the distant view of the Orleans Town Cove the two see from the exact spot in front of the stove where their jam magic happens. “We wanted something a little Cape Cod-y, too,” says Anna. A crafter who creates greeting cards, tinned soy candles and modern baby quilts, she’s designed a clean logo to grace their lid-top labels. Tyler says, “We purposely chose to keep our jars completely uncovered so people can see the jam.”
The Keyes view each farmers’ market as a treasure hunt that will guide them not only to that night’s dinner, but to the next week’s jam, and banter to each other as they begin their quest.
“Anna, Dr. Chung’s son grew some fantastic grenade zucchinis,” says Tyler. “Go get some! Rummage away,” says Anna.
Tyler returns minutes later with a bunch of golden beets, a bag of haricot beans, an enormous garlic scape, several jars of Nauset Beach Atlantic Ocean sea salt, a pair of whole wheat thumbprint cookies (generously filled with Little Bay Jam) and apples from a Massachusetts orchard, all cradled in one arm. From his other hand drops the bat he’s been swinging (a loaf of bread) and he finally tosses Anna a pair of the aforementioned zucchinis.
“These are so cute!” says Anna, grabbing her phone to snap a picture, genuinely thrilled with his haul.
Some recipes that the Keyes create or uncover, in books or online, call for an ingredient few farmers’ markets stock—hard alcohol. “You pour it in and almost immediately you can watch the alcohol bubble up, only the flavor seeps in,” says Anna. Strawberry Margarita with tequila and rum, and French Martini with raspberries and lemon vodka were recent creations. Grilled Pineapple laced with Kahlúa is the favorite of this writer. It was at least until the Keyes unboxed the cache of Lime Colada last week. Fresh lime zest. Dark rum. Sublime.
Hanker for spicy? Little Bay can do. The pair will seek out authentic ingredients like scotch bonnets, no problem. Anna says, “If we can only find a small amount of what we need we’ll do a reduced batch size. We won’t compromise the jam.” When a customer wanted more heat in their Peach Jalapeño, Little Bay bumped it up, crafting Nectarine Habanero.
Little Bay veers away from artificial colors and flavors, but that’s “not always the case,” says Tyler. “Depending on the species used, au natural mint jelly is a pale yellow-green-brownish tint, so we now add artificial colorant to half the batch for customers who prefer the traditional vibrant spring-green hue.”
At times, Anna and Tyler bend the rules to indulge their whimsies. “We couldn’t pass up some of the retro-influenced recipes we’ve unearthed,” says Anna, citing a 1950s recipe that needed canned pineapple and red maraschino cherries. “We also needed some Red Hots for our candy apple jam. Other than that we try to keep it local.”
Never mind the piquant, the herbs, the three-nights soaking required to soften citrus rinds, the unique pairings of lesser-known fruits and vegetables and the lovely alcohol-imbued recipes. Let’s talk antioxidants; let’s talk chocolate.
“Incorporating it into our jam was, for us, the excuse to have chocolate for breakfast,” says Anna. Three recipes reign supreme so far: Chocolate Raspberry, Black Forest (chocolate cherry,) and the newly launched White Chocolate Raspberry, into which the duo stirs white chocolate chunks just before jarring. Last week several vendors were witnessed striding across the market field as the gates opened to reserve a jar.
On a recent rare Saturday when a conflict kept the Keyes away the market, more than one customer was heard grumbling about the need for their chocolate fix. One client remarked, quite dismayed, “It’s just so delightful and easy, I simply serve it on saltines to guests for dessert.”
While there are some classic Little Bay combos that the Keyes try to maintain, if a recipe whets your palate, you may want to stockpile a few pantry backups. Little Bay frequently sells out, and because their creative energy feeds off the bounty of each season, it may be a while until a favorite flavor reappears.
By fall Little Bay will have completed a nine-week trial run of a Wednesday afternoon summer Orleans market, but will still be in full canning mode for the Saturday morning markets, which run through November 17. Considering the Orleans Farmers’ Market committee is mulling over an indoor winter location, and that the pair has two demanding full-time jobs, perhaps the Keyes should pencil in a little R & R.
As the vendors set up each week, Anna artfully arranges their selections near a jug of flowers fresh from their garden. Tyler is foraging with fervor through the other vendors’ just-picked produce and herbs, from which this fearless duo will concoct some of the yummiest jam ever. “I like to switch it up and give people something they might not know,” says Anna. “My Dad describes our jam cooking as ‘the weird stuff.’”
Call it weird. Wild. Whatever. Call it wonderful.
Little Bay Jams
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Since 2011, freelance writer Michelle Koch has been delighted to be tent mates with Anna and Tyler Keyes at the Orleans Farmers’ Market. Stocking a supply of Little Bay Jam makes a blank crepe wonderful, and keeps her riding her bike! She works with eighth grade students at Nauset Middle School, grows flowers and bakes with whole grains for the Orleans and Wellfleet farmers’ markets, and lives with her daughters Camille and Chloe, and their dog Woof.