It's a cold December morning in Clapton, East London. Filament lights glimmer behind the frosted glass of London Borough of Jam founder Lillie O'Brien's front door—a welcoming entrance, adorned with a festive wreath of bay leaves. Inside, steam rises from a vast copper pan filling the air with the smell of tart rhubarb and hints of orange blossom. A colossal brown sack of unrefined sugar rests heavily beside a vegetable box containing dirty carrots, among other seasonal British root vegetables. "The carrots from Leila's Shop are black with soil, but once scrubbed they're really orange and they taste amazing!" says 35-year-old O'Brien, with an enthusiasm most people wouldn't place on fruit and vegetables. Leila's Shop (known for selling only the best of the best produce) was, incidentally, one of O'Brien's first stockists of her jam. And it's these simple, honest ingredients that interest her the most.
Growing up in Melbourne, Australia, O'Brien trained as a chef and worked in restaurants for eight years before moving to London in 2007. She created London Borough of Jam five years ago while working as a pastry chef at St. John Bread & Wine. "It was a tight group of people and a special time when I was there," she says. St. John is also partly responsible for her love of preserving seasonal fruits. "In the middle of summer, the fruit supplier might call up and say they have raspberries at £3 a tray, so I'd take fifty trays and make loads of jam," she says. "That meant that in January, February, and March we could make steamed sponges, raspberry ripple ice cream, Bakewell tarts…." Another of O'Brien's tasks at St. John was filling the now infamous, drool-jam-down-your-chin-good doughnuts. "I'd fill them with crème patisserie, but now they're a way of showcasing the jam in my shop."
The leap from pastry chef to shop owner was an ambitious one, but when O'Brien opened her LBJ shop two years ago, people would make the pilgrimage to Clapton just to get the doughnuts. "I sell like, 70 doughnuts on a Sunday and they always run out!" she says. The shop itself is an imaginatively sourced enclave that attracts with the wafting scents of fresh coffee and said doughnuts, keeps you interested with the best in food publications (from Gather Journal to Lucky Peach), and convinces you of a deep need for LBJ Damson Gin and colorful woven baskets.
The jam on the stove has been bubbling ferociously for ten minutes. Chester, O'Brien's British Blue cat—named after the city of Manchester where he was found—is seemingly unimpressed by the new scent of orange blossom, preferring to linger in the dimly lit hallway, where he can observe from afar. While rhubarb and orange blossom is a new, experimental combination for O'Brien, she's become known for her novel flavor pairings. Seasonal fruits are delicately enhanced with one additional ingredient—Blackberry & Bay Leaves, Amalfi Lemon & Vanilla, and Raspberry Licorice are just a few on offer. The most popular to date is her Fig & Earl Grey, thick with seedy fruit and rich like a compote. "Turkish figs start in October and go to late November, so there's only a certain amount," she says. "I'm convinced that's why people go wild for it."
LBJ preserves are made in small batches by hand and cooked for a shorter timeframe than commercial jams. The resulting taste is less sugar-high sweet and more fruit-forward flavor. "The jam should always taste of the fruit first, then sugar," she says. Producing a distinguished and delectable flavor for all of her preserves is key. Sometimes they set, sometimes they don't (O'Brien doesn't use pectin, only what naturally occurs with each fruit), and part of the joy is that each and every batch is different. "I never really thought that jam would be so popular," she says. "Back home, I grew up in a marmalade house but people here love jam!"
For more, see londonboroughofjam.com.