Megan Abbott

Interview: London Borough of Jam

Megan Abbott
Interview: London Borough of Jam

Originally published on suitcasemag.com

If you’ve ever wafted past the antique shops and food stalls of Chatsworth Road on the weekend, you may have noticed a little shop tucked away just off the main street. The exterior is blue, with white lettering spelling out ‘LBJ’. Inside, braided wicker baskets and bunches of dried flowers hang above a wooden table of folded linen napkins, candles and Portuguese ceramics. The shelves are packed with sauces, oils and pickles. It’s kind of like an adult sweet shop, promising to make your life infinitely better with terracotta plant pots and bars of organic hand soap. At the centre of it all are the stacks of gold-lidded glass jars filled with jam, which Lillie makes during the week to sell on a Saturday and Sunday.

Raised in Melbourne, Lillie worked as the pastry chef at the legendary St John Bread & Wine for four years. Lillie’s jams are all seasonal – she loves the idea of bottling up the best fruits and vegetables when they are at their best. The flavours are bright and bracing, from lemon and vanilla bean to rhubarb and cardamom, tangy pickled strawberry or blackberry and bay leaves. With her inventive conserves, she has join a small brigade of Londoners breathing new life into the old art of preserving. We paid a visit to Lille at her Hackney house, where a copper pan of apricot and camomile jam popped and gurgled on the stove. In her small, sweet-smelling kitchen she tells us about London Borough of Jam, a shop as neighbourly and warm as its owner.

Tell us a bit about life before London Borough of Jam. What led you to this?

Before I started LBJ I was a chef and trained in Melbourne. I cooked there for 6 years before going to live in Japan for a year then I decided to move to the UK and try my luck in a few kitchens here. My friend back in London emailed me to say that there was a pastry position going at St John Bread & Wine so I went in and asked Head Chef James Lowe if it was still available. I had a trial the next day with Head Pastry Honcho Justin Gellatly, and the next thing I knew I was working in pastry! I remember sitting at The Eagle in Farringdon with the new St John cookbook ‘Beyond Nose to Tail’ staring at a picture of Barbie with liver wings thinking this had to be the coolest place to work. I stayed for 4 years and loved it.

Where did your interest in jam come from?

My mum has always made Marmalade and jellies but weirdly never made jam, I need to ask her about this! We never even had commercial jam in the pantry, I think my mum was a bit of a sugar tyrant hence why there was never anything sweet in the morning.

It wasn’t until St John Bread & Wine that I really started to understand the seasons and preserving them as we had such limited supplies and then gluts. I was basically only allowed to use apples, lemons and chocolate in winter, knowing that we had strawberry jam in the cellar was liquid gold!

What was the moment you realised you wanted to make a go of London Borough of Jam?

I think I reached a point in my early 30s when I thought I didn’t want to be a head chef, own my own restaurant and didn’t want to work double shifts on Sundays anymore, so I started thinking about what I could do. I started making jam at home as a hobby and testing it out at markets. I had great feedback and started to get really excited by it. There is something so lovely about preserving a season in a jar.

Do you think people are becoming more interested in preserving food? Is it trendy or just resourceful?

I think it used to be resourceful but now I think it’s becoming more trendy. When I moved to East London 10 years ago you couldn’t get anything, and coming from such strong café/coffee culture (Melbourne) I was shocked. Climpson’s on Broadway market was the only place to get a decent sandwich and coffee otherwise we would catch the 55 into town and go to Flat White in Soho or Bar Italia. St John was one of the very small select places that did Sourdough, nobody knew what it was!

Is jam easier to make than people think?

YES! I think people overthink it and end up getting really stressed out and ruining it. If you keep your sugar at the right levels then it will give you some leeway to cook it for a bit longer and you need the right saucepan as anything with a thin base will just catch, and of course good quality fruit. A strong heat and quick cooking is the key.

What have been the greatest challenges with starting up your own business?

Starting out with no investment has been my biggest challenge and I am now starting to understand that this may be more of a positive thing as I have never rushed, I haven’t had the money to accelerate quickly and it’s given me a better understanding of the business.

And what has been the high point so far?

I am hoping this year will be a high point as I have spent the last few months working with a very small distributor in Japan who is going to hopefully sell my jam there. It has always been a dream to be able to sell there as its one of my favourite countries. I really feel a though I connect with Japanese people and they understand what I am trying to achieve.

Tell us about the shop. Why is Chatsworth Road a great place to have it?

I never set out to have a shop but the small space became available and as I only lived in the next street it felt too hard to say no. The idea was to have a space and also use as storage, I have always wanted to put a kitchen in there so I can hold jam workshops which I would love to do in the future. I feel really lucky to have come across the space before all the rent went up on the street and it became really popular.

Where do you like to eat/drink/have coffee on Chatsworth Road?

Coffee at 46b is my favourite. I am also really excited about the arrival of the new Jim’s café which is being taken over by the Wilton Way guys and Nuno Mendes. A chef I also used to work with at St John is doing the food which is even more exciting!

What are some flavours you are coming up with at the moment?

I am obsessed with loganberries as they are sharp and work so well with sugar. I haven’t had time to go to my fave farm in Kent to get them and an amazing customer has been cycling up from south London for the past 4 weeks with some. In return I make jam for him so he has a year’s supply. In terms of researching flavour, I usually go out into my garden and see what is growing. I have had loads of lemon verbena, rose geranium, angelica and fig leaves this year as my garden is becoming more established.

And what is your favourite way to eat jam?

I’m not a massive toast person so tend to have it on yoghurt and in winter porridge. And I love Victoria sponge…

Tell us your daily routine at London Borough of Jam.

Since I moved the main part of my jam production to a larger kitchen in Somerset it has meant I can focus more on limited editions and recipe testing at home. As I am about to start exporting to Japan I have had to move the kitchen to a larger space so that I can make more! I try and do my desks jobs on Monday and Tuesdays and the rest of the week make jam at home, I also have to keep an eye on the shop, ordering and stock control. Even though I am only open weekends it still takes up a bit of time.