Handmade Tropical Jams And Jellies
Preserving nature’s bounty is a family tradition for jam maker Aletha Thomas. Growing up in the Midwest, she learned from both grandmothers and her mother. “Every August, when my sisters and I got home from school, our job was to go into the backwoods behind the house and pick a bucket of blackberries,” recalls Thomas, owner of Monkeypod Jams.
Here on Kaua’i, Thomas would stroll through the farmers markets and enjoy Kaua’i’s tropical fruit. She began to grow nostalgic and started making jam for her family. “It started out as a personal hobby because it was something I didn’t want to die with my elders,” she says.
Thomas is a teacher by trade, and when the Friday furloughs left her with extra time, she increased production and began selling jams at the farmers markets. “At the beginning it was just to have something to do, and it just took off,” explains Thomas.
Although her days vary among picking fruit, making jams, testing recipes and selling at the markets, there is one standard: creating unique spreads using fruit grown on Kaua’i. “I could easily order from the Big Island or go out of country for a lot of our tropical fruit, but our mission is to only buy Kaua’i produce.”
Lilikoi, Meyer lemon, Tahitian lime and Rampur lime are used in four delec-table curds. These sweet and tangy spreads can be used as a filling for layer cakes or you can spread them on biscuits and scones.
Fans line up 30 minutes before the market opens so they can buy a case of the top seller, Lilikoi curd.
Devoted customers know that pre-ordering by way of the website ensures they get their favorites.
“I have one jar of ginger jelly left. A customer has been wanting it for three weeks, so today I was able to bring it special for her,” says Thomas, who sells her jams at three farmers markets: Waipa each Tuesday, Kukui’ula in Poipu each Wednesday and Kaua’i Community College in Lihue Saturdays.
Another popular spread is the Bananas Foster jam made with apple bananas, brown sugar, vanilla and cinnamon. Besides spreading it on toast, Thomas suggests warming it to use as an ice cream topping, adding it to a peanut butter sandwich or spooning over yogurt.
Thomas’s fiance, Robert Newton, is the mastermind behind their Herbal Infusions line. His products include two spicy jams: mango-chipotle and mountain apple-pepper. Orange-rosemary and pineapple-lemongrass jams also are his creations.
Thomas and Newton are always thinking about jam. One evening, tired from a full day at the Mango Festival in Waipa, the couple watched the sunset over Hanalei Bay. Sipping a St. Regis pineapple margarita, Thomas got inspired. “It was a beautiful cocktail and I thought, ‘Oh, this would make a perfect jam.’ So the next week we had pineapple-mint!”
Developing recipes is part of the fun for Thomas and creating a coffee jelly is one of her more interesting experiments. “John (McClure), owner of Moloa’a Bay Coffee Company, asked if I would be interested in trying to make a coffee jelly. He brought us big jugs of cold-pressed coffee and I played with it for a while. We were using agar to thicken it up and we put in too much. It was so jelly, it was bouncing across the kitchen!”
The final recipe is a distilled coffee essence. Cold-pressed coffee takes two days to brew, and is equivalent to espresso – very strong but extremely smooth. “It’s a cold press so all the impurities make it out and it’s just a beautiful coffee,” Thomas says. “I have some hunters who love to buy our coffee jelly and use it as a glaze instead of a rub.”
It’s early evening and the vendors at the Kukui’ula gourmet market are beginning to pack their wares. The sun, low in the sky, casts long shadows on a farmer from Kokee. He smiles warmly as he delivers 100 pounds of pineapple for Thomas’s next batch of jam.