From the moment we first heard about Eleanor’s Best, we were intrigued.
A blurb on the Cold Spring Area Chamber of Commerce’s website not only describes what the company does but also hints at the manner in which it does it:
“We are a scrappy business that makes and sells artisanal handmade jams, jellies, preserves and marmalade in Philipstown, N.Y., which lies in the heart of the Hudson Valley. We started this adventure to share the awesome and intense flavors that we grew up with.”
And the company is doing just that — with a clear vision and a bit of attitude to spare — which we learn during a mid-afternoon visit with founder Jennifer Mercurio as a recent day’s work is winding down.
“It’s pretty straightforward,” she says with a warm smile, welcoming us into her commercial kitchen, a short hike beyond the Cold Spring shopping district. “This is our Jammery with a capital ‘J.’”
Mercurio, who grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and Rhode Island, has tapped into her own — and many a family’s — traditions.
“Growing up, it was ‘women’s work’ making jam,” she says. “It was women’s work to make things and preserve things.”
But, at first, it wasn’t to be Mercurio’s work. No, she spent years as a successful intellectual properties and corporate lawyer in the video-game world before the switch.
“Everyone sees me as this really serious Darth Vader attorney,” she says with a laugh, though now her days are more often filled with raspberries and rhubarb, ginger and grapefruits.
“I started making jam when we moved up here to the Hudson Valley,” she says of the efforts shared with family and friends. Soon, “people we didn’t even know starting showing up at our home and began asking for it.”
She began formally selling it — the first sales coming from six jars at The Country Goose in Cold Spring — near the end of 2013.
Since that first success, Mercurio has maintained her focus creating products “slow stirred in small batches,” by a staff that has grown to 10.
“We do it all very purposefully. The jam is literally what you would dream of having, made by your great-grandmother or aunt.”
There’s an inherent respect for ingredients, with Mercurio buying fruits and vegetables from family-owned farms, fields and orchards whenever possible. And that includes her family’s own, Mercurio Farms in nearby Garrison, her husband Joseph’s domain.
There’s also a dedication to creating a product free of additives, dyes or fillers — all those things that crowd a typical jam label. The products, Mercurio notes, are also naturally vegan and gluten-free. “We don’t want the big chemical load.”
Each of the 14 flavors contains just four ingredients except for the strawberry-rhubarb, which has five.
FROM FARM TO TABLE
Though the company gets its natural ingredients at their peak — from farms and farmers markets — they are often frozen to maintain a steady supply throughout the year.
The recipes, which take anywhere from a couple of hours to up to three days to finish, yield a product that is then — no big machines here — ladled into jars by hand.
The commitment to a pure approach extends to the packaging, with Mercurio sourcing jars and lids from historic American companies. The products are packed in fully compostable boxes, with all packaging designed to be recycled and reused.
And more than just local followers, including chefs who collaborate with Mercurio on custom blends, appreciate the results.
Eleanor’s Best is now sold in “31 states and D.C.,” Mercurio says, with outlets including fine cheese shops, butchers, gourmet stores and larger specialty retailers such as Whole Foods Market, Mrs. Green’s Natural Market and Hannaford.
Mercurio says a big part of her work also reinforces the idea that food should be about more than flavor.
It should, Mercurio says, transport you.
Quince jam, she shares, turns the spotlight back on a onetime Hudson Valley favorite, while other customers tasting Eleanor’s Best might have their own family associations with flavors such as blueberry or hot pepper.
The tastes and the preparation, Mercurio says, often take her back to her own earlier years.
“When I make flavors, I’m recalling the memories.”
And that’s something she hopes to pass along, with her young daughter already taking an interest in the business. But, Mercurio stresses, making jams and jellies goes beyond the day-to-day efforts and traditions being carried on.
It’s about offering healthier options for families, something she touches on during the small classes she leads. It’s also about giving back, a key element of the company.
Eleanor’s Best and Mercurio Farms donate to many local charities and organizations, working to support organizations that fight childhood hunger, support family farms and promote the use of real and nourishing food. Mercurio and her husband are also local volunteer firefighters.
Throughout, she wants her daughter to see, “This is the way we live in a community.”
Eleanor’s Best, Mercurio explains, is not only named after the 150 years of “Eleanors” in her family but continues to build on their legacy of creating something special.
“It’s real, and real food is just better… It’s accessible gourmet food.”
For more, visit eleanorsbest.com.