BARKHAMSTED — There’s a strong, spicy, tear producing aroma in the air of the kitchen at the Colebrook Senior Center, that makes a visitor cough a little and head back to the entry door. Mike and Julia Stewart chuckle a bit and follow.
“It does hit you a little,” says Julia Stewart, one of the masterminds, along with her husband, of Simply Jam, which have as their key ingredients, jalapeno (especially) and bell peppers. Fruit and peppers, you might ask? Well, yes — the combination has developed a strong (pun intended) following among foodies. In fact, Simply Jam is doing a hot business selling several varieties of their jam — over 18,000 jars in 2018 — quite an increase from when the Stewarts first began their cottage business in 2011. The number of jars is increasing exponentially each year.
“It’s the combination of tasting the fruit at first and then the little kick of the jalapeno and bell pepper that comes afterward,” explains Julia of the reason for the jam’s popularity. “You get the sweet and that spicy crunch at the end bite.”
She herself wasn’t a believer at first, before being introduced to pepper jam by a friend, Carol Parent of Winchester. But, as the couple says on their website, “It was love at first bite.” Soon, they were making their own pepper jams and gifting them to neighbors and family, who repeatedly asked for more, more, more.
The Stewarts began selling their jams at local holiday craft fairs and orchards in 2011 and after becoming fully licensed in 2016 started selling direct to local farms and stores in the area.
“We got immediate positive feedback to our jam,” claims Mike Stewart. “We’ve actually had people come up to us and even visit us at our home to say how much they enjoy the jams and that they can’t get enough of them.”
The first store the Stewarts’ jams got into was, of course, the venerable Colebrook General Store, which sits just across from the Senior Center. Simply Jams can now be found in 80 stores around the region, including big retailers like Big Y, Stop and Shop, Adams Hometown IGA’s and La Bonne’s Market. The jams have been shipped to over 30 states as a result of online orders, according to Mike Stewart. “We could ship overseas but that gets quite expensive and a bit complicated.”
Says Julia, “We believe what makes our jams special is that we hand make all of them and hand pour each jar. We even hand label each jar. They are not mass produced and we don’t add any ingredient that would make the jams gel too quickly.” That’s why when viewed inside the individual jars, the pieces of peppers are suspended in the fruity liquid and when held to the light appear almost as stained glass.
“We try and source as many of the products that go into the jams as possible in season, from local sources, such as Jillybeans Farmstand in Bristol, Gresczyk Farm in Barkhamsted and March Farms in Bethlehem,” offers Mike, who helps out in the kitchen, setting up venues and delivering the jam to the various locations.
The couple, who live in Barkhamsted, make their jam at the Colebrook Senior Center kitchen because it is larger than the one at their home. They are fully licensed to produce and store the jam.
“We would love to have a large professional home kitchen so we wouldn’t have to rent the space here,” says Mike, “but this has worked nicely thus far.”
If one is hesitant about trying the jams because of the kick of the jalapenos, Mike explains that it is nowhere near the hottest pepper known to man. “There’s a scale (the Scoville Scale) to measure the hotness factor and this jalapeno is at the lower end, nowhere near the ghost pepper and other very hot peppers. It is a sweet heat, gentle warmth,” he explains.
Simply Jam products have several basic hotness levels, a mild variety consisting of fruit with 70 percent bell and 30 percent jalapeno peppers, up to the hottest, which contains 10 percent bell and 90 percent jalapeno peppers.
Simply Jam comes in seven varieties: Mild; Raspberry Jalapeno; Cranberry Jalapeno; Garlic Jalapeno; Mint Jalapeno; Hot, and Extra Hot. The company also offers summer seasonal specials: Strawberry Jalapeno; Peach Jalapeno, and Blueberry Jalapeno.
The couple even offers up some tasty recipes on their well-composed website. How about “Jalapeno Jam Glazed Salmon,” “Raspberry Jalapeno Jam Chicken Salad Sandwiches,” “Jalapeno Jam Loaded Cheesy Nachos,” or “Sticky Jalapeno Jam Chicken with a Green Salad,” all made with, of course, Simply Jam.
“It also goes well as a dip dish on an appetizer board,” said Julia, who hails from England. “Really, it can be used on any meat and is great as a glaze if barbecuing.”
The couple gets assistance from their son-in-law Russ Clay, who helps out in the kitchen, handles website design, accounting and marketing.
“Where do we go now?” said Mike when asked how he and his wife would like to grow their business. “We are self-sustaining and very happy with how we have progressed. The next step would be ramping up production and getting into more stores on a greater scale, but we haven’t quite made a decision on that yet. But we are at that point where it is possible.”
In the meantime, the customers of Simply Jam are getting their taste buds all worked up and asking for more. Julia and Mike Stewart will keep working hard to meet their cravings.
Visit www.SimplyJam.net for more information.