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Jam Company Causes a Stir

Barnard Couple Preserves Uncommon Flavors

  • Nancy Warner of Barnard, Vt., stirs a pot of carrot cake jam at Potlickers Kitchen in Waterbury Center, Vt., on April 29, 2014.<br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

    Nancy Warner of Barnard, Vt., stirs a pot of carrot cake jam at Potlickers Kitchen in Waterbury Center, Vt., on April 29, 2014.
    Valley News - Sarah Priestap

  • A pot of apple cider jelly boils to the brim at Potlickers Kitchen in Waterbury Center, Vt., on April 29, 2014. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

    A pot of apple cider jelly boils to the brim at Potlickers Kitchen in Waterbury Center, Vt., on April 29, 2014.
    Valley News - Sarah Priestap

  • Six of nearly two dozen of the Potlickers Kitchen jellies and jams. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

    Six of nearly two dozen of the Potlickers Kitchen jellies and jams.
    Valley News - Sarah Priestap

  • Walter Warner, left, pours apple cider jelly into jars while his wife, Nancy, waits to put lids on the jars at the kitchen of their company, Potlickers Kitchen in Waterbury Center, Vt. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

    Walter Warner, left, pours apple cider jelly into jars while his wife, Nancy, waits to put lids on the jars at the kitchen of their company, Potlickers Kitchen in Waterbury Center, Vt.
    Valley News - Sarah Priestap

  • Nancy Warner of Barnard, Vt., stirs a pot of carrot cake jam at Potlickers Kitchen in Waterbury Center, Vt., on April 29, 2014.<br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap
  • A pot of apple cider jelly boils to the brim at Potlickers Kitchen in Waterbury Center, Vt., on April 29, 2014. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap
  • Six of nearly two dozen of the Potlickers Kitchen jellies and jams. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap
  • Walter Warner, left, pours apple cider jelly into jars while his wife, Nancy, waits to put lids on the jars at the kitchen of their company, Potlickers Kitchen in Waterbury Center, Vt. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

In a small commercial kitchen in Waterbury Center, Vt., the deep, warm aroma of spices and a faint, vinegary tang of wine fill the air. It’s May outside but inside it’s late fall and early winter — or at least what we think they ought to smell like, an enveloping fragrance of cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg, and the more complex, subtle undertones of a Burgundy, with cherry and chocolate notes.

Nancy and Walter Warner, the couple behind Potlicker Kitchen jellies and jams, are in the midst of making spiced wine jelly, which is the color of deep garnet. Nancy Warner explains that the Burgundy, which is mulled with nutmeg, clove and cinnamon, cooks for 20 minutes in a large vat. Once it’s rested for a few minutes they skim the foam off the top and then pour the mulled wine into Mason jars, which are then sterilized in a boiling water bath.

The Warners, who live in Barnard, began making jams and jellies in Waterbury Center in 2013. They started out in their home kitchen in 2012, but that became impractical, given both the volume of the jellies and jams they were producing, and state regulations stipulating that food producers using a home kitchen can earn only $10,000 in gross sales. Above $10,000, state regulations stipulate that a food producer must obtain a permit and use a kitchen that can be certified by state inspection.

After looking around the Upper Valley for a commercial kitchen and, not finding one to their liking, they ended up leasing the Waterbury space, which is roughly a 45-minute drive from their home.

“This is truly a start-up from nothing, especially the business side,” said Walter Warner.

They head up to Waterbury at least twice a week, and often more at busy times of year, to make batches of their beer and wine jellies and fruit jams. There are about 20 flavors in all, which are sold at retailers across the country and farmers markets in Vermont at an average cost of $7 per jar.

The couple also make forays to New York or Washington, D.C., for food and beer expos, and were part of the Tastes of the Valley expo put on by Vital Communities at Hartford High School in April. “Have jam, will travel,” said Walter Warner.

The Potlicker brand includes an eclectic mix of flavors and combinations, among them Vermont beer jelly, apricot ale beer jelly, a jelly made with the highly sought-after Heady Topper beer, hefeweizen beer with orange jelly, carrot cake jam, blueberry sage jam, coffee jam, strawberry chipotle jam, and Burgundy anise wine jelly. Last year they canned almost 19,000 jars, and at the height of their season in fall, they produce up to 1,000 jars a week.

Potlicker products can be used as straightforward jams and jellies on toast, as sweet toppings or fillings for desserts and cakes, and as glazes and flavor enhancers for meats, poultry and fish. Sometimes customers will suggest a combination, like the pear ginger jam they’re working on getting into the rotation. More often the Warners, and particularly Nancy Warner, develop the flavors themselves.

Nancy Warner grew up north of Tampa, Fl a., and studied archaeology as an undergraduate at Florida State University, which is where she met her future husband, who was also majoring in the field.

After graduating they came north to Vermont, where Walter Warner earned a law degree and masters in environmental law and policy at Vermont Law School in South Royalton. Having grown up in the Catskills in New York, he was happy to come back to the climate of the Northeast. They married in 2008.

The jam and jelly business started with Nancy Warner’s appetite for being in the kitchen, and her habit of foraging for wild food outside. “Food is in the family,” she said. Both parents worked at one time as professional chefs, and her sister is a pastry chef in Washington, D.C. The forager in her was born when she was on archaeological digs in the Southeast, and began to research the mushrooms and plants that she saw around her.

Take kudzu, the Vine That Ate the South. Turns out it’s edible and you can tame the viney beast by using it as a green in stir fries and soups. Another invasive species, Japanese knotweed, the Rhizome That Ravaged the North, makes a pretty pink jelly with a rhubarb-like flavor.

And don’t overlook violets, rose hips, dandelions, cattails, day lilies (buds and roots), forsythia, ramps, wild sorrel, fiddlehead ferns, dock, sumac, stinging nettles and burdock. They’re not all suitable for jams or jellies, but they’re all edible and nutritious.

“I have a motto: If you can’t beat it, eat it,” Nancy Warner said.

There’s more to it than just the novelty factor, or a way to combat invasive species. “I like lost flavors, the things people have forgotten they can eat,” she said.

Her Southern heritage also accounts for the name of the business. Although “potlicker” sounds as though it’s describing what you do when you lick your plate clean, it’s drawn from “pot liquor,” the savory liquids and bits of food left at the bottom of a casserole or stew pot.

After they have canned all the spiced wine jelly in the Waterbury kitchen, they start making a batch of apple pie jelly. Nancy Warner is particular about the clarity of the jellies. A jar of apple pie or beer jelly held up to the light is like looking through a clear amber or golden glass. There’s no sediment or foam t o muddy the liquid.

To achieve that the Warners use different kinds of pectin, a thickening agent found naturally in citrus fruits and apples that can be used in liquid, powdered and low-sugar forms during the cooking process. The right kind of pectin cuts the cooking time and preserves clarity, as does a thorough straining of the jellies once they’re cooked.

The most challenging aspect of the business has been just that: the business side of researching regulations, getting permits, dealing with suppliers and vendors, and marketing, marketing, marketing.

A successful start up no longer depends only on hard work, a good product and word of mouth. Social media now drive advertising and publicity. Facebook, Twitter, Etsy, Instagram, Pinterest, and the Potlicker blog and website are all key Internet sites for publicizing a business such as Potlicker Kitchen, said Walter Warner. “I think there’s a personal aspect to our business; we’re not a company without a face.”

The only drawback, if you can call it that, is Nancy Warner’s zeal for inventing new jellies. “I have a hard time saying no to new flavors,” she said; while her husband would like to cut back on the number of flavors to concentrate on the ones they already have. At the same time, novelty and innovation are aspects of their business.

“I think people are always looking for something new,” Nancy Warner said.

For more information on Potlicker, go to potlickerkitchen.com.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.