As Vermonters, we're used to our cheese and our beer and our spirits cleaning up at national and international competitions. But a San Francisco-based award recently bestowed on two Vermont producers recognizes culinary achievement in an unorthodox category: preserves.
They’re called the Good Food Awards. Judged by the likes of Alice Waters, and with a black-tie awards ceremony introduced by Mark Bittman, the awards have been likened to the Oscars – and they celebrate the intersection of good taste and sustainable, responsible business practices.
This year the Grafton-based Blake Hill Preserves took home a Good Food Award (its second) for its cranberry and orange chutney, and Michael Fraley, a.k.a. the Green Jam Man, won for his black currant jam.
“It was the first jam I ever made,” said Fraley, who began making jam in Burlington in 2009. Today, the one-man operation churns out roughly 60 different flavors of jam, jelly and marmalade, with a stubborn commitment to traditional methods (think copper kettles).
“As I’ve grown my business, and, you know, you reach out to different people in the industry, you are literally told you are crazy a number of times. And I go, ‘No, I’m not, this is how I want to do it.'"
Fraley was celebrating, with several other Vermont winners, at Burlington’s Hen of the Wood, where many had donned the shiny Good Food medals shaped like beer bottles and mason jars. In addition to two awards in the preserves category, Vermont producers laid claim to two of the three national awards for cider (Eden Ice Cider and Shacksbury), two for cheese (Vermont Creamery and von Trapp Farmstead) and one for confections (Big Picture Farm).
The awards, with their celebrity cachet and West-coast conscientious vibe, are good for business. When the Green Jam Man became a finalist – before he even won – a business out of South Dakota contacted Fraley to place an order.
As for Blake Hill Preserves, owners Vicky Allard and Joe Hanglin couldn’t make the gathering at Hen of the Wood, because the following day they had a meeting with The Fresh Market, a North Carolina-based gourmet supermarket chain who became their first national account after their 2014 award.
“Last January, 2014, we were selling on average about … 2,000 jars a month” Allard said by phone from her hotel room. This January, Blake Hill sold 8,000 jars – a 300 percent increase.
“It’s been huge,” Allard said.
In addition to preserves, the Good Food Awards also recognize products in other unconventional categories: honey, pickles, charcuterie, oil. Sarah Weiner, the founder and director of the Good Food Awards, says that prestige, as well as rigorous quality standards, are especially important for artisan foods that aren't judged as often as, say, cheese and beer.
“We thought it … would be a wonderful thing to include categories where there might not yet be an industry standard of how do you taste and evaluate pickles, or sauerkraut,” Weiner said by phone last week. “They don’t have a way to be recognized otherwise.”
Back at Hen of the Wood, Michael Fraley says that in Vermont, at least, most of the foodie attention goes to more glamorous artisanal products.
“Jam is definitely, I think, overlooked in a lot of ways,” Fraley says. “That's because … you know, people grew up with Smuckers.”
Vicky Allard agrees. “I love Vermont beers and Vermont cheeses,” she says. “But I would love for Vermont to start to be seen as, like, this hub of other great products as well.”
Correction 9:30 a.m. 2/17/15 This story originally misstated the home state of The Fresh Market; the company is based in North Carolina, not South Carolina.