“You have got to meet Coco,” enthuses my editor. “She’s a kick in the pants and she makes the most amazing jam.”
Of course he had me at “kick in the pants,” but when I heard there was jam involved I was out the door. And so this is how I find myself in the up and coming Dogpatch area of San Francisco, going to meet Coco Guilhem, an artisanal jam maker and creator of Maison de Monaco, who is just real and natural as her hand crafted, utterly delicious confitures.
Her business partner, a charming Frenchman by the name of Henri Borius, ushers me into the huge building and through a labyrinth of offices, all buzzing with activity. Walking down the hallway I quickly note the variety of businesses I pass along the way: an atelier, muffin maker, caterer and a huge space that smelled hypnotically of peppermint patties, the Williams-Sonoma chocolate bark manufacturer.
Henri explained to me as we walked how the area had consisted mostly of canneries or had been vacant for the last thirty or so years but was undergoing a regeneration thanks in part to the University of California moving in down the street spurring the creation long term plan to rebuild and revision neighborhood.
“Everyone is friends here, we all work together,” explains Coco as she greets me. She is as sparking eyed as I had imagined with a ready smile as she invites into her industrial kitchen. In fact, Henri owns a neighboring business, they met in the hallway and he became her business partner.
“I am very good at making jam but not very good at business, Henri is very good at business and he asked if he could help. Of course I said yes!”
As she is saying all of this she is filling jam jars along with her assistant. A copper pot is bubbling away releasing the intoxicating perfume of just ripe fruit.
“The secret to making really good jam,” says Coco, “is to not overcook it so it caramelizes, this way it tastes fresh and not too sweet, like real fruit.”
It also helps that Coco only uses all natural, nonGMO ingredients with none of the preservatives, citric acid, or corn syrup that so many other jams contain.
Coco grew up in Brittany, France making jam with her grandmother. “I took her recipe as a starting point and cut the sugar in half. I made the recipe my own and started creating different flavors,” Coco explains.
From that starting point she opened a jam business in France called Les Fruits Potines, selling her preserves to hotels and gourmet stores. It was a lucrative business but then Coco experienced that ennui so many do around their 40th birthdays.
“I had I think what you call a midlife crisis,” laughs Coco. “I decided to sell my jam business and move to San Francisco.”
About 25 years prior Coco had worked as an au pair for a couple in Marin. She reconnected with that friend and began her new life.
“My friends here told me I should start my jam business again and so I did,” Coco explains. Through her friends she got help finding a distributor and the rest is history. Now her jams are enjoying a healthy wholesale business and can be found on the shelves of Costco, Safeway, and Whole Foods.
Coco fills the last jars with jewel colored fruit, caps each by hand and places them in a cage which she hoists, with the help of a small crane, into a bath of boiling water for pasteurization.
We sit down and she shows me some specialty jams she is making for a chef friend. Wonderfully paired jams like Blackberry and Pinot, Strawberry and Cabernet. She then shows me some of the flavors she makes, delicious combinations like Peach and Lavender, Black Mission Fig and Apricot, Strawberry and Sichuan Pepper. We chat about jam and life. She whips out her cell phone to show me pictures of her recent wedding.
“I like to say I met him the old fashioned way,” her eyes twinkling, “online!”
Fresh and innovative in an old fashioned way, that is certainly the way Coco lives her life. Both she and her jams are innovative, honest, full of flavor, and a little bit spicy.