It’s no secret that Early Girl Eatery on Wall Street prides itself on selling locally sourced Southern comfort food. But Early Girl enthusiasts might be surprised by just how local their ingredients are. In fact, when they leave the restaurant during its peak weekend brunch hours, they are likely to find Walter Harrill of Imladris Farm — the man behind the jams they just smothered on their biscuits — selling his products in a cart right outside. Harrill and his business partner and wife, Wendy, produce seasonal jams from their seventh-generation family farm in Fairview only 15 miles away.
Wearing his trademark Tula hat, which, he jokes, “keeps the sun out of my eyes and off my balding head,” Harrill provides generous samples to Early Girl customers craving seconds. Inside the restaurant, his Berry Best and raspberry jams adorn the tables, and his apple butter is served with Early Girl’s hushpuppies.
Jams are not only delicious, Walter explains, they’re also a way to use produce that may not be visually pleasing enough to sell at market but is still 100 percent healthy and flavorful. Before, that fruit might have been wasted or composted, but now it can go into value-added products like jams. “It’s perfect for us,” Harrill says, pointing at the blueberry jam on his cart display. “You’d never know that a blueberry in there had a little ding in it.”
Imladris is one of many local farms continuing the Southern Appalachian tradition of jam-making and embracing a seasonal, sustainable approach. And as restaurants in Asheville have increased interest in sourcing ingredients from area farms as part of the local food movement, farmers have found success in new markets.
Many of these farm-to-table relationships were conceived by the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, a nonprofit dedicated to building a local healthy food system in Western North Carolina. Among its many initiatives, ASAP organizes the Asheville City Market, does educational programming with children and helps introduce farmers to business owners interested in selling sustainable food.
Jessica DeMarco, who produces handcrafted jams and other artisan foods as the owner of Copper Pot & Wooden Spoon in Waynesville, calls ASAP an “invaluable connection” in helping her find local produce when she started her business five years ago. DeMarco specializes in seasonal breakfast jams as well as a line of boozy flavors, including apple pie moonshine, bourbon-blueberry and even a spiced apple and beer variety that uses the Tadpole porter from Frog Level Brewing Co.
DeMarco also designs recipe collections for her products. “Jam isn’t just for toast,” she says. “There are a lot of pairings people don’t realize.” Her latest collection will feature beer jam, bread mix, pickled jalapeños and a recipe card for beer bread corn fritters and beer jam butter.
On Aug. 16, the West Asheville Tailgate Market held its inaugural Summer Jam Festival to boost the spirits of vendors who had endured a rainy market season and to show off local jam offerings. “I wanted to do something to celebrate the summer and the literal fruits of our labor, because it’s the point in the season where our farmers have just been working so hard,” says market director Quinn Asteak. The event had live music, a kiddie pool filled with corn kernels and a jam-tasting competition where shoppers could try six local jams and vote for their favorite.
The winner was the Bears Jam entered by Sarah Decker of Root Bottom Farm, which mixes blackberries, strawberries and raspberries in a sweet but healthy combination. Root Bottom, which Decker runs with her husband, Morgan, in Marshall, is a no-spray organic farm offering jams with “twice the fruit and half the sugar” of most conventional preserves. Root Bottom jams are available in the farm’s weekly community supported agriculture boxes, as well as at ticketed farm-to-table dinners held on the property.
West Asheville’s Sunny Point Café has also been a major local food supporter from the restaurant perspective. Not only does it source whatever ingredients it can from Asheville farmers, it even maintains a garden of fresh produce and herbs right next to the restaurant, which the staff harvests for menu specials.
Sunny Point offers a regular fruit jam with its angel biscuits, and its jalapeño Oh, Hot Jam is served with the popular fried chicken and sweet potato waffle sandwich, which is then topped with pimento cheese and maple black pepper bacon. Both jams are made using Sunny Point’s recipes and ingredients but are processed and bottled by Imladris Farm. Assistant manager Noah Hermanson applauds this collaboration, noting that local foods are undeniably connected to positive community development. “Really, it comes down to the fact that you can build a whole business around supporting all these other local businesses,” he says. “The rest falls into place.”
Those who are interested in making their own jams can find supplies at many local stores, including Fifth Season, Kitchen & Co. and Villagers. And Villagers will offer an affordable class on the subject on Sunday, Sept. 11 (see sidebar).
Also, since jams are shelf-stable, they can be the perfect way for those visiting the area to support local farmers while bringing home an authentic piece of Appalachia. ASAP’s Local Food Campaign program director, Molly Nicholie, says, “To be able to offer jams that folks can take with them and have as a token of their experience here in the mountains is a great tool for connecting them to food and agriculture in the region.”
To find more sources of sustainable local produce and jams made in the Blue Ridge Mountains, ASAP’s Local Food Guide is available online at appalachiangrown.org.