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Even the most eager DIY foodie's eyes glaze over at the mere mention of canning. One envisions immigrant grandmothers struggling over hellish steam kettles to put up the August zucchini before it spoils. The spectre of food poisoning lurking on the edge of the scene doesn't help, either. Botulism, it whispers. Exploding pressure cookers. Jam Armageddon.
Of course, a little hands-on lesson goes a long way toward dispelling half-truths. Originally from California's Bay Area, Janina A. Larenas, 29, picked up canning as a hobby from an ex-boyfriend's mother. Since she studied printmaking and book arts at UC-Santa Cruz, it was never the plan to become an Alice Waters-brand artisan. But that she did, creating Little Isobel, her own line of locally sourced seasonal jams.
After relocating to Philly to escape California's ballooning cost of living, Larenas landed a job at Capogiro, the city's bastion of elite locavore desserts. Since August 2004, she's been turning things like Seville oranges and Lancaster County blackberries into the ethereal frozen cups of gelato that make the city's hottest months that much more bearable.
But with gorgeous produce from Green Meadow passing through her hands every day, prepping fruits for the gelato machine just wasn't enough. The work came home.
Making preserves became a serious hobby after Larenas moved to South Philly. "The produce in the Italian market is always completely ready to go, and they have to get rid of it — cheap," she says. "High-acid canning is the easiest way to preserve foods. I would buy a case of prickly pears for $5 and have to put them up right away."
Larenas' fruits and jellies became Christmas presents, and it wasn't long before friends and family were clamoring for more. So she sought the advice of her boss, Capogiro co-owner Stephanie Reitano, on the feasibility of turning her skill at crafting preserves into a business. Reitano immediately encouraged her, offering practical and moral support.
Named after her cat, Little Isobel was born in June 2007 when Larenas kicked off her experimentations at Capogiro's 20th Street location. And her concoctions — intensely flavored and low in sugar — are good enough to give the Smuckers a family-size inferiority complex. New Jersey peaches are spiked with Kentucky straight bourbon to create a dense, lush jam. Strawberry preserves with cracked black pepper and balsamic vinegar are so packed with fruit, they stand upright on the spoon.
Since Larenas has always been a fan of not-too-sweet jams ("A small amount of sugar keeps the fresh fruit or herb flavor," she says), her herb jellies are brilliantly understated. Rosemary and rose wine combine in a subtle gel that begs for a place on your cheese plate or morning toast. Bay laurel gets a splash of plum wine and rice vinegar — and you don't have to fish out the leaf.
Locally produced ingredients are a vital part of Larenas' philosophy. Her bay laurel and rosemary are sourced from Lansdale's Overbrook Herb Farm, which has always used chemical-free growing methods. Along with a variety of local produce, wine vinegar from Di Bruno Bros. and glass jars from Lancaster complete the production cycle. The chemical-free labels are handprinted at home by Larenas, who's in the process of developing unique designs for each of her flavors.
As far as sustainable food goes, Larenas has noted a difference in attitude between her home state and Philadelphia regarding sustainable food. "If you are talking about environmental impact ... in California, people would rather get certified organic produce from Chile than sustainable produce from a family farm 20 miles away," she observes. "Here, people are more concerned with buying fresh and local."
Paul Tsakos of Overbrook Herb Farm recently featured Little Isobel products at an event at the Reading Terminal Market, where he offered tastes of the jams on its own. He'd spread some of Larenas' rosemary jelly on leftover Easter ham and thought it quite nice, and suggests using her herb jellies as a glaze for pork or mild fish. Larenas, a lifelong vegetarian, recommends pairing the bay laurel and plum wine jelly with a cave-aged ripe sheep's cheese.
Though she was trained to create books, not preserves, Larenas finds some parallels between her dual skills. Both, she says, are unglamorous but ultimately satisfying. "Mindless, repetitive tasks are the curse of the printmaker," she says. "You put all this effort into the beginning, then you make the same thing over and over — just like making jam!"
Little Isobel preserves are available at Capogiro Gelato Artisans (117 S. 20th St. and 119 S. 13th St.), at the Fair Foods Stand in the Reading Terminal Market (12th and Arch streets) and online at littleisobel.com.