Bustling between tables and manning the kitchen at their mom-and-pop Jacksonville restaurant kept Jeffrey and Penelope Levin plenty busy before taking on a new project.
For the past month, customers of MacLevin's Whole Foods Restaurant may have noticed batches of jam simmering on the stove next to the Levins' borscht. When they have a few minutes' break from frying Jewish latkes and assembling hearty Reuben sandwiches, the couple fill and label jars and bottles of Sisterfields fruit preserves.
"If there's an extra 10 minutes that aren't being used, it's become second-nature," says Jeffrey Levin. "We never thought we could do it when we were open."
Ultimately, Sisterfields jams, vinegars, fruit butters and sauces will be produced Tuesdays and Wednesdays when MacLevin's is closed. For now, the Levins are busy all week meeting demand for a 20-year-old, locally produced brand that had fallen off in recent years as the former owners, Jill Crawford and Lynda Taylor, suffered some health issues and chose to retire.
"We had to cut back in order to keep our best stores full," says Crawford. "We've been everywhere in the valley."
Recently, Sisterfields retailers had dwindled to Ashland Food Co-op and Ashland's Shop 'N Kart. In addition to those grocers, the Levins have since stocked Medford Food Co-op, Food 4 Less and Market of Choice with eyes toward other locally owned stores.
"They didn't want to see it disappear," says Jeffrey Levin of stores that hadn't sold Sisterfields in a while. "It's branded. People recognize the labels."
Born in 1992 in Crawford's and Taylor's rural Medford home, surrounded by orchards and U-pick berry patches, Sisterfields was at the forefront of the Rogue Valley's local, artisan-foods movement. The duo had careers in government and social services before changing gears and selling their jams and fruit vinegars — then a scarce commodity locally — first at farmers markets. At its height, Sisterfields was featured in catalogs for holiday goods from Gary West Artisan Smoked Meats and Rogue Creamery, says Crawford.
The Levins still are testing the waters of supplying Sisterfields on such a large scale. In the meantime, they're bringing back a product that hasn't been seen in more than a year: brandied cranberries. They've even improved the recipe, making it the way that Crawford always would have liked.
"We're pleased that they're into making whole foods and healthful foods," she says.
Penelope Levin starts with whole cranberries, instead of canned ones with high-fructose corn syrup that Sisterfields formerly used. She simmers the berries with pure cane sugar and spikes it with 10-year-old brandy, also a higher-quality product than the previous recipe contained. The 6-ounce jar costs $3 at the restaurant.
"It's festive; it's beautiful," says Levin, recommending it as a topping for cheesecake or accompaniment to pastry-wrapped, baked Brie.
"I am not a big cranberry fan, but twice a year, I really want it in several different directions."
The Levins are staying true, however, to Sisterfields original recipes for jam, which contain only fruit, sugar and lemon juice, and for vinegar, simply steeped with whole fruit and sweetened with a bit of sugar.
Vocal opponents of genetically modified organisms in the mainstream food supply, the Levins use only cane sugar instead of sugar from GMO beets. Corn syrup, they caution, comes from GMO crops.
"We want to make a barbecue sauce without corn syrup in it," says Jeffrey Levin, explaining that the couple also would use it in the restaurant because they can't purchase non-GMO condiments, like ketchup, at reasonable prices.
Already producing their own lacto-fermented pickles and sauerkraut, the Levins were in the process of sourcing equipment to package them for retail sale when Sisterfields' business found them. Crawford and Taylor are regular customers of MacLevin's and offered their recipes and stockpile of jars, bottles and labels.
"We're working very closely with them," says Crawford.
"This is going to pay for a slow winter," says Jeffrey Levin, adding that he and his wife, both in their 70s, hope to focus full time on Sisterfields while their son, daughter-in-law and grandson run the 15-year-old MacLevin's.
Levin plans to offer samples of Sisterfields brandied cranberries and raspberry and Marionberry jams Saturday morning, Nov. 10, at Food 4 Less in Medford. He'll have the cranberries and raspberry and raspberry-balsamic vinegars Saturday afternoon, Nov. 17, at Market of Choice in Ashland.
Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487 or email email@example.com.