Nesting in Ulster Park with
Julia Sforza of Half-Pint Preserves
PHOTOGRAPHS BY JENNIFER MAY
When summer peaks, the shelves of Julia Sforza’s basement pantry begin to fill with row upon row of jars packed with a rainbow of homemade jams, pickles and preserves as well as bottles of homemade vinegars and botanical-infused liqueurs. Likewise, the shelves of her chest freezer become crowded as bags of blueberries, strawberries, asparagus, jostaberries (a sort of black currant and gooseberry hybrid) and tomatoes vie for space with a bag of suet and the butcher paper–wrapped packages that hold what’s left of the half pig and quarter grass-fed steer she purchased earlier in the year.
The sight of this perennial bounty never fails to please Sforza, the owner of Half-Pint Preserves, a cottage industry making small-batch jams and preserves from Hudson Valley fruits and organic sugar (no commercial pectin) that she runs out of her home in Ulster Park. “There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing all those jars lined up. It’s just so pretty—like stained glass,” says Sforza.
Although she’s toyed with the idea of expanding, Sforza prefers to keep her business small and hyperlocal, selling her preserves at just three locations in the Hudson Valley—Old Ford Farm in New Paltz, Shop Little House in Woodstock, and Clove in Red Hook. In her mind, there’s no point in using local fruit for your product if you’re going to sell it somewhere else.
Although Sforza’s sales are limited by geography, recognition for her products is not—her strawberry rhubarb rose petal jam and her apple plum star anise jelly took home back-to-back national Good Food Awards in 2012 and 2013. Accolades aside, her work is no more glamorous than it is lucrative, so it’s fortunate that Sforza seeks neither glory nor gold.
“I make jam because I really like to make jam,” says Sforza, who spends much of her time at the preserving kettle—a round, wide Le Creuset Dutch oven for smaller batches and a gigantic stainless steel pot for larger ones—when she isn’t caring for her young son. Sforza first came to the Hudson Valley to attend SUNY New Paltz, where she met her husband, Steve. The pair spent many years elsewhere, including Portland, Oregon, and Brooklyn, New York, while Sforza had a variety of jobs—in producing stock photography, film production and higher education administration as well as various winery and restaurant gigs—before the couple returned in 2003 and purchased a house with several acres of land.
Although she grew up cooking and gardening alongside her parents, it was not until she became pregnant with her son in 2008 that she got truly hooked on preserving. “I think the canning was almost like this uber-nesting thing—to have jars and jars lined up and this freezer full of food,” says Sforza.
Sforza writes regularly about her adventures in growing, cooking, preserving, foraging, and eating on her blog, the Preserved Life. I find that I cannot read just one of her posts and regularly find myself sucked down the rabbit hole as I note new things to cook, plant and read. Sforza’s writing is authentic, down-to-earth, and soulful in a thoroughly artless way. Each post is like a full meal—in addition to a recipe or technique, there is always lots of meat in Sforza’s reflections on life, parenting, nature, food and more. In a post this past spring, Sforza wrote about morel hunting and the presence of being: “You see the shiny leaves of the pin oak, and the soft undersides of the silver maple, and the white wrinkly bark of the poplars. You see the soft long grass waving in the wind, the red and shiny new leaves of the poison ivy that sends out runners everywhere. The details seem to pop out everywhere, and there you are, really looking. It’s a great meditation.”
Maintaining a blog is Sforza’s way of forcing herself to keep writing as well as a useful tool for recording what she’s done. “It’s like a journal in some respects,” she says. The blogosphere has also provided a way to forge connections, particularly in the early days before home canning became more common and a cultural hot point. “I love that there’s this community out there of like-minded people who like to share ideas. It’s neat to talk about jams and jellies and pickles and not be met with a blank stare,” says Sforza.
“I love that there’s this
community out there
of like-minded people
who like to share ideas.
It’s neat to talk about
jams and jellies and pickles
and not be met
with a blank stare.”
On a recent visit to her home, Sforza took me on a tour of her gardens— a patchwork of beds spread throughout various parts of her yard that is unfenced. For some reason, the deer have spared Sforza and seemingly do not care for her stretch of land. The garden is designed around her penchant for preserving food. “What I grow is mostly about what I can save in a jar or the freezer. It’s just nice to know you’re eating stuff that you grew,” says Sforza. Asparagus, tomatoes, beets, cucumbers, green beans, strawberries, jostaberries, rhubarb, turnips, squash and a variety of greens grace the loosely defined rows and beds at various times of the season.
Sforza favors the kind of crops that require the least fussing. “If something is happy, I leave it alone. If something doesn’t like growing in my garden, why force it? There are so many great farmers in this area that I don’t have to worry about missing out on something if I choose not to grow it,” says Sforza. This laissez-faire approach to gardening serves her well, particularly with regard to her fledgling orchard, which has thus far been a lesson in letting go of expectations.
“Now that I have a couple of fruit trees I realize that it is so hard to grow fruit,” laughs Sforza. Still, she’s persevering with a couple of trees. “The plum trees are really bad—they’ve got some kind of fungus. The quinces have been in there for years and finally this year, I see a few quinces on them—we’ll see if they make it to harvest.”
Fortunately for Sforza and her customers, there’s plenty of good fruit to be had close by. Her preserves are made with quinces from Locust Grove Fruit Farm in Milton, strawberries and blueberries from Greig Farm in Red Hook, apricots and plums from an orchard on her street, apples from Fishkill Farms as well as from wild trees close to her home. “The flavors are always changing—it all depends on what’s good that season,” asserts Sforza.
Half-Pint’s jams and jellies are made with organic sugar and without the crutch of commercial pectin—those small plastic jars of magical white powder you can find in the canning supplies of any hardware store that can make anything set up. “I get around it by using wild apple jelly or apple pectin stock for fruits that aren’t naturally high in pectin. Also, my jams are a much softer set than something that you’d find that uses commercial pectin,” says Sforza. In addition to her own products, Sforza also works for a few local orchards, developing recipes and helping to bottle their bounty. “September is my very busiest time of year. All the fruit is finishing up and all the vegetables are exploding,” explains Sforza.
“What I really want is for people to start
to make their own jam—it’s so easy”
GARDEN TO PLATE
As we wandered through her gardens on the sunny hillside, Sforza gathered ingredients for the salad she planned to serve with lunch—lamb’s-quarters, mizuna, baby turnip greens, chives, strawberries and some of the first leaves from her squash plants. Back at the house, she rinsed and dried everything before dressing it with a glug of good olive oil, a drizzle of pomegranate molasses, a splash of her homemade red wine vinegar, a sprinkling of coarse sea salt and a couple grinds of black pepper.
She’d made a big cast iron skillet of corn bake—a recipe from Christina Tosi, Momofuku’s pastry chef—using corn from Davenport Farms in Stone Ridge and beef suet from Meiller Farm in Pine Plains. The result was a moist, deliciously dense casserole with little bits of sweetness from the corn kernels. She served it with soft butter and honey.
Although she treated it like the least of her accomplishments, I was most impressed by the bread—two gorgeous, round, free-form country-style loaves. The crisp crust shattered to reveal a soft interior with a perfectly balanced flavor and a nice crumb. “I had been baking bread and was never happy with it and then someone sent me the Tartine Bread book and it changed everything,” says Sforza. Served with Manchego cheese and a jar of Half-Pint’s beautifully floral, amber-colored quince jelly and big green olives, the loaf could have been a meal in and of itself.
Sforza also grabbed a glass bowl of red-skinned turnips that she’d given a quick pickle in rice wine vinegar, salt and a little ginger. They were so addictive that I ended up buying some Hakurei turnips a few days later at the farmers market to try to re-create them, although my success was debatable—tasty but not nearly as good as hers.
A beautiful, little strawberry rhubarb galette whose browned crust was studded with half-melted sugar crystals sat waiting on a butcher block table for dessert. The flavors were spot-on, a subtle melding of the sweetness of strawberries with the tartness of her homegrown rhubarb. Sforza is generous with her knowledge, “What I really want is for people to start to make their own jam—it’s so easy,” she says.
After passing the master preservers course at Cornell Cooperative Extension, she began teaching canning classes at Ulster BOCES in Port Ewen. “I make a lot of food, I bring it in, and I just talk them through the process. It’s a lot of fun and everyone gets to eat and take home a jar of something for their pantry,” says Sforza.
I left her house with a very full stomach, several jars of Half-Pint Preserves goodies and a quart jar filled with several otherworldly looking vinegar mothers that Sforza had saved floating in white wine, as well as her simple instructions for how to go about turning wine into vinegar on my kitchen counter.
It turned out to be just as easy as Sforza said it would be— those vinegar mothers have since multiplied, creating many baby bottles of vinegar. I’ve given some of their daughters on to friends who wanted to try their hand at making vinegar. As they say, the knowledge gets passed on.
I also learned a brilliantly thrifty gardening tip—rather than discarding the roots of store-bought scallions, simply plant them in the dirt et voilà, you will soon have a whole, new scallion plant of your own!
Whether she’s making jam, bacon, cheese, yogurt, sourdough bread or vinegar, Sforza brings a deep appreciation for the food and all that goes into making it. Despite the inescapable twee trendiness of local food and retro-homemaking, there is nothing remotely precious about Sforza’s work. Her blog is not some Pinterest-ready catalog of gorgeously staged food (complete with stripy straws) that omits any mention of the sweat, tears and failures that undoubtedly went into each masterpiece. Nor is it written in a perky yet somehow personality- less voice that relies on falsely friendly slang like “for realz” to try to build a connection with its readers. Sforza bears her soul and shares whatever secrets she’s learned along the way in each post, and I, for one, cannot get enough.
HALF PINT PRESERVES