Words by Melissa O'Brien, Photography by Dennis Welch
Jars of V Smiley Preserves are small enough that you might miss them, but you shouldn’t; you mustn’t. The names of the flavors will make you swoon and you will begin to question your lifelong dedication to plain old strawberry or raspberry or, god forbid, grape. Here’s why: Bosc pear with bearss lime and vanilla; navel orange with mission fig and cardamom; pear sage lemon marmalade with lavender. You won’t find anything else like them anywhere and once you’ve had them you’ll start looking for them everywhere you go.
V Smiley, the graceful alchemist who presides over the creation of these life-changing preserves is tall and elegant. And she knows clothes: “When I was little I wanted to be a singer,” she reveals, standing in her fabulous pink clogs and stirring a copper pot of ingredients destined to become jars of Pear Lemon Sage White Pepper Marmalade. “And I was also completely fashion obsessed. I wanted to work at Vogue.”
V grew up on a farm with her three siblings. “My parents were inspired by the back-to-the-land movement of the ’70s,” she says, “… the Nearings, the emphasis on self-reliance. It was their dream to have a farm.” And have a farm they did: one hundred and fifty acres in New Haven, Vermont, where V lives now with her partner, Amy, and her mom, Susan.
In the years between leaving Vermont to study and work and returning to Vermont to revitalize the family farm and focus on her business, V Smiley Preserves, V wove her way through kitchens and restaurants in California and Washington state. V worked in the art world in Los Angeles for a time before moving to Whidbey Island in Washington to cook for writers in residency at Hedgebrook. “Food was a huge part of how they created space for artists there,” she says in her thoughtful, lyrical way.
During those years, V was inspired, not only by the chefs she worked with, but by the environments in which they created. “I worked in visually appealing restaurants, where all of one’s senses are on fire because it’s just so beautiful,” she says of places like Sitka and Spruce, and The Whale Wins, both in Seattle. It was at a restaurant called The Corson Building where V was given a day each week to do preservation projects, “extending my home obsession with all types of preserves into my professional work.”
“What you come to understand is that V’s art is not just about the delightful names, the intriguing combinations of ingredients, it’s not just the magical person creating the preserves. It’s about the honey.”
In 2011, V left the restaurant world for a time to work in the confections department of Theo Chocolate, in their caramels division. “There I learned about production, product development, and that I didn’t like working for a large company,” she says. “It wasn’t a good fit, but I thank my lucky stars for the access it gave me to the inside of a food company making certified organic products and all the compromises and trouble, in terms of sourcing and carbon footprint, that hewing to that standard can bring upon a product.”
It’s a treasure to watch V making her preserves, moving around the kitchen and through the various phases of marmalade production (cook, infuse, jar, clean and sterilize, label—this business is neither for the faint of heart nor for the impatient) and speaking about all the different spaces and places of her life. “I wandered further and further into cooking,” she says of how she came to the place where she is today, with Amy, growing fruits, vegetables, and herbs on their farm, and creating her preserves in the kitchen at Tandem in Bristol.
What you come to understand is that V’s art is not just about the delightful names, the intriguing combinations of ingredients, it’s not just the magical person creating the preserves. It’s about the honey. It’s the honey that sets V Smiley Preserves apart from every single other jam, jelly, or marmalade on the shelf.
“I don’t eat sugar,” V explains, and thus her tenacious desire to prove that it was possible to make preserves with an alternative sweetener. “Jam making was a product of the Victorian era and came about in the presence of sugar,” she says. “I simply refused to believe that you couldn’t make jams without using sugar, so I spent a year and a half cooking my way through Rachel Saunders’s Blue Chair Cookbook,” what many would consider to be the definitive jam and marmalade cookbook of the twenty-first century.
Saunders, who made and sold preserves from her shop in Oakland, California, was one of the pioneers of using fresh, seasonal, organic ingredients in her jams and marmalades.
V’s persistence paid off and eventually she was able to create a whole new version of equally interesting and far healthier preserves and with that came the beginnings of V Smiley Preserves, launched into the world in August of 2013. Using honey as a sweetener in preserves does, however, significantly impact cost, a reality of which V is always aware in the niche world of jams and preserves. V’s way of keeping her products at a reasonable price point was to begin packaging them in her signature two-ounce jars.
“Her adherence to creating a product rooted in her deeply held principles of supporting neighbors and producing locally does not come easily nor inexpensively.”
Not surprisingly, all of the honey V uses comes from a local beekeeper—Kirk Webster in New Haven, Vermont. Her adherence to creating a product rooted in her deeply held principles of supporting neighbors and producing locally does not come easily nor inexpensively. Jam and preserve making is “all about time and craft,” V says. “It goes against the spirit of what you normally encounter in the kitchen.” It’s about what’s growing, what’s happening in the season and the place in which we live. In the spring, V makes cherry rosehip hibiscus jam and cherry sherry fennel savory jam. In the summer it might be gooseberry or red currant jam; nectarine fig rum star anise conserve or habanero peach jam. Winter brings apple warm spices conserve, bergamot orange marmalade, and Seville orange date coffee marmalade.
“When you spread V’s preserves on your morning toast with butter, you are participating in a story that is deeply embedded in kitchens and coastlines and farmland.”
When you spread V’s preserves on your morning toast with butter, you are participating in a story that is deeply embedded in kitchens and coastlines and farmland. When you add her Smoky and Spicy Heirloom Tomato Jam to your wedge of cheese—a creation for which V was given the Good Food Award in San Francisco this past winter—you are tasting “a perfect representation of my romantic and professional partnership with Amy,” who grew the tomatoes and peppers on their farm.
V Smiley’s story and passion for creating magical, flavorful, and nourishing preserves using the herbs and fruits and vegetables and honey born of the world around us is all right there on your bread, in your hands, about to become a part of you—precisely what we wish for in our foods. How grateful we must be for people like V, doing the hard work to make our lives beautiful and healthy and delicious.
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