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Strafford woman honors her late son’s sweetness

  • Elizabeth Clarke, of South Strafford, Vt., coats her Nanarella’s Fruit Pate with sugar in the kitchen she rents in White River Junction, Vt., on Monday, Jan. 20 2020. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Elizabeth Clarke, of South Strafford, Vt., ccuts a batch of her blueberry fruit pate in the kitchen she rents in White River Junction, Vt., on Monday, Jan. 20 2020. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Elizabeth Clarke's son Dana, then 10 months old, eats berries out of a bucket. Clarke got into the berry business and started making fruit pate to honor her son's memory and to raise money for a scholarship fund in his name. (Courtesy Elizabeth Clarke)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 1/21/2020 6:12:59 PM
Modified: 1/22/2020 4:59:54 PM

Elizabeth Clarke makes one 6-by-6-inch slab of candy at a time in the kitchen space she rents in White River Junction. Double batches would be too heavy for her to lift and pour into the molds where they cool and become soft, chewy candies containing the tang and sweetness of summer days gone by.

Staying small is fine for this late-in-life entrepreneur who’s made few other concessions to age, as long as she can start to make a profit. Nanarella’s Fruit Pate, which Clarke started about two years ago, exists for one reason: to memorialize her late son, Dana. Little by little, Clarke is putting aside money to create a scholarship in Dana’s name.

“He was the kind of guy who would pick up a hitchhiker and drive an hour out of his way,” said Clarke, cleaning dishes as she waited for a batch of amber-hued lemon-thyme fruit paté to cool last Thursday. “I wanted to do something to honor him.”

Clarke, who describes herself as “crowding 80,” moved to South Strafford 20 years ago as she was approaching retirement. After earning a doctorate from Cornell, she’d worked at technology companies in New York and New Hampshire, primarily in the field of business process reengineering. When her son Graham moved to Hanover with his family, he urged her to move nearby. On her first visit to the area, she found a house with the country feel she was looking for, within walking distance of the general store.

“It just had a lovely sense of place,” she said.

In 2004, Clarke’s dreams of an idyllic retirement were derailed by Dana’s death. He was 39, and worked as a physicist at NASA’s Ames Research Center. She decided to continue working for a few more years to keep her mind busy, but she began thinking of ways to honor Dana’s memory.

One day, the answer came to her. “I had these enchanting baby photos of a 10-month-old (Dana) doing a deep dive into a bucket of berries,” Clarke recalled. “I decided to make a berry farm and figure out a way to make money to donate to scholarships.”

After planting blueberries, raspberries and currants and giving her farm a name — Morrill Mountain Fruit Farm — Clarke started making and selling preserves. But the profit margins were too small, and since she wanted to use only berries from her own farm, she couldn’t scale up.

Then, on a whim, Clarke made some pate de fruit, a traditional French confection she’d encountered while traveling in Europe, and gave out samples at a Christmas market.

“They were very popular,” Clarke recalled. “Someone said, ‘you should be making and selling this.’ ”

The idea made sense. Pate de fruit was a specialty item that could command a higher price. No one in the area was selling it. And from a packaging perspective, it was much easier to deal with than preserves. Clarke decided to give it a try.

The first challenge was perfecting the recipe. Clarke wanted to use only high-quality, all-natural ingredients, and she wanted her candy to taste like traditional pate de fruit. Typically a winter treat, the brightly colored, chewy cubes are designed to preserve fruits and showcase their essence.

With the help of a food chemist in Boston, Clarke spent several months experimenting, bringing the failed products to the barn where she boarded her horses, where hungry teenagers were always happy to take them off her hands.

Finally satisfied with her product, Clarke took a six-month class in food entrepreneurship in Brattleboro to learn how to get it out into the world. It was there that she shed her resistance to face-to-face selling and embraced her identity as a grandmother handing out candy.

She remembers telling her classmates one day that she was an introvert and didn’t plan to sell at markets. “The whole class just said, ‘you have to,’ ” Clarke recalled.

The class also weighed in on the name for Clarke’s candy. First, they nixed pate de fruit because it was too hard to say properly. Then, they endorsed the name Nanarella (a twist on Cinderella), a nickname Clarke’s son Graham had given her during the years she spent driving her three granddaughters to after-school activities and helping out with household chores.

“He just insisted that it be called Nanarella’s Fruit Pate,” Clarke recalled. “I thought ‘oh, that’s hokey.’ ”

But her classmates thought otherwise. When Clarke mentioned it, “Everyone in the class just went, ‘oh, I want my Nana to make me candy,’ ” Clarke said.

Nanarella’s Fruit Pate was born, and Clarke began selling it in stores and markets around the region, nested in packages designed by her friend Tate Daly, a graphic designer in South Stafford. The candies come in several varieties and are now carried locally at Dan & Whit’s in Norwich, Coburn’s in South Strafford, the Upper Valley Food Co-op and the Woodstock Farmers’ Market store. Clarke also sells the candies online (www.mmffvt.com) and attends various special events around the region, usually with a granddaughter or friend at her side.

“Most of the time, it’s fun,” she said.

The business is also close to becoming profitable. When that time comes, Clarke plans to set up a scholarship in Dana’s name at The Clarkson School, a selective, early college program he attended prior to studying at Clarkson University, and donate all proceeds to the scholarship.

“I just want to perpetuate his spirit of generosity,” she said.

Sarah Earle can be reached at searle@vnews.com or 603-727-3268.




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