Jul 23, 2021 • 32M

A Conversation with Camilla Wynne

Talking to the master preserver and author of 'Jam Bake: Inspired Recipes for Creating and Baking with Preserves' about making jam approachable.

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Camilla Wynne’s new book Jam Bake: Inspired Recipes for Creating and Baking With Preserves can make anyone believe they can make jam—even me, a person classically impatient with all matters of preservation. But it also goes a step further by helping you figure out what to do with those jars of jam, thanks to Wynne’s training and experience in pastry. From nostalgic whipped shortbread cookies with a thumbprint of jam to mango cream pie, it can change how one approaches fruit in the kitchen.

We talked about how fruit has changed since our grandparents’ time, how she found a style for teaching preservation, and what makes people afraid of jam. Listen above, or read below.


Alicia: Hi, Camilla. Thank you so much for being here. 

Camilla: Thank you for having me. 

Alicia: Can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate? 

Camilla: I love this question. I feel very lucky. Well, I don't know if I feel—

I grew up in Edmonton, Alberta. So in the prairies, in Canada. I left when I was 18. I don't know, as a teenager, if I felt so lucky. But I feel very lucky about what I got to eat. So I had a set of grandparents in the country, two hours north, who gardened, on the farm that my mom grew up on. And so I got to eat a lot of homemade, homegrown food. And then my grandparents in the city had emigrated from Europe. And so, they grew totally different varieties of stuff in their garden and made totally different homemade foods. And they were both delicious. And there was this huge variety.

And then at home, which I think is unusual for a kid in the ’80s, is my dad was the cook.

And I complained a lot looking back on it during the period—they were separated for seven years—that my mom only made like five things. But retrospectively she was a working mom going to university and she made my five favorite things, actually. So it's great. 

But my dad was a super creative cook. He never followed recipes and he shopped all over the city, Asian grocery stores mostly. And he was a truck driver, so he’d go to the Italian store and the Mediterranean bakery and stuff. And they'd always be giving him things. I always try to give delivery drivers something now actually for that reason.

Alicia: [Laughs.] Wait, what were your five favorite things that your mom named? 

Camilla: Lipton’s Chicken Noodle Soup.Ichiban ramen. Cheese tortellini with butter. Well, I guess this doesn't count as making ‘em. Little Caesars pizza.

Alicia: I've actually never had Little Caesars, but people tell me it's good. [Laughs.]

But that's interesting. I used to eat, make cheese tortellini and put nothing on it. It was one of those—the only things I would make for me and my brother during the summer, when both my parents were at work, I would just boil the cheese tortellini. And we’d just eat it plain, which is, I don’t know. I haven't thought about how kind of odd that is. [Laughter.] 

Camilla: I mean, whatever. I ate raw noodles and stuff. [Laughter.] With a stick of butter.

Alicia: Right. [Laughs.] 

Well, the first thing I did after reading the introduction to your book, Jam Bake, was look up your old band. And it's always interesting, because so many people in food have these very interesting backstories to before food. First off, it takes a while sometimes for people to get to food. Either you're really in it from when you're a teenager or a kid, or there's always these signposts along the way that food is your thing. But you don't listen until a little bit later. 

But you write about touring with the band and everything you ate. And I wanted to hear a little bit more about how that part of your life influenced your coming to food eventually. 

Camilla: Well actually, for me, it was a break in my food life. Well, I moved to Montreal to go to university and then dropped out to go to pastry school. In pastry school, I joined a band and then started working at fancy restaurants and had to quit for the first time because you can't leave for two weeks when you’re a pastry assistant. That's fully impossible. On a two-week tour of the States, I remember.

But I'm so lucky that the owner, pastry chef, co-owner pastry chef that was one of my mentors, he would always hire me back. Very lucky. But then they kicked me out, and then I joined the one that had some more success.

And I think it was sort of a no-brainer for me to leave on tour and leave the culinary world for like five years, just because I felt I would never get that opportunity again. It's pretty amazing to be able to make records and tour around the world and stuff. 

But at the same time, I came back and all my friends had opened their own shops or become pastry chefs. And I was like, ‘Oh, my band broke up. And now I'm coming back, and I'm gonna be your assistant.’ I'm glad I did it. But yeah, it was an interlude, I guess, you could say.

Alicia: Well, what was it specifically? Because you're a master preserver. What was it about that that was a specific attraction to you. 

Camilla: It had to do with both pastry and being a touring musician, actually, I think. Because in pastry, so much of what we make is so ephemeral. We had to bake off new financier every day and stuff like that. And they had a one-day shelf life. So when I kind of discovered—when I realized that I could start making my own preserves, I was like, ‘Whoa, it's so satisfying to make something that I'm going to be able to enjoy six months from now.’ That seemed kind of magical to me. 

And also the same thing when I was on tour: I was so infrequently home. And I have so many fruits and vegetables that I'm obsessed with that it felt really important that I be able to hoard the ones that I really cared about during those times when I was home. 

Alicia: Can you tell me about the process of becoming a master preserver? What is that like?

Camilla: So, it sounds a lot fancier then it is. It's a really cool program that I wish existed in Canada, and it doesn't. And it's funny, I often get billed as one of Canada's only master preservers, but that's just because that's not a Canadian program. My frustration with, as originally a self-taught preserver, was always wanting to know more and why, and how does this work? And I'm not allowed to change anything. Well, why? And no book seemed to explain it. And so, I really wanted to know more. 

And so, I looked all over for the program. But a lot of them happen every second weekend or something, so it's not viable to travel for that. They only accept people from residents of the county, stuff like that. But finally, I found one in New York state that was like a three- or four-day intensive, so I just booked a hotel and went down there. 

And, for me, I'm really glad I did it. It was the two most charming women who taught it. And I did learn a lot, but it's about teaching people to be home preserving teachers, essentially. And for me, I already started my business. And I just really even wanted to do more. I wanted to know everything. So after that, I got some more education that really helped. That really wrapped it all up, and I felt pretty cool after that.

Alicia: How did you kind of develop the style that came to be the book, where you are making jam but you're not just putting the jam on a sandwich on toast? How did you come to your style? 

Camilla: Well, the concept for the book, for Jam Bake, is twofold.

So I ran an independent, a little preserving company for—in Montreal—for seven years or so. And spent a lot of time behind tables at craft fairs and farmers’ markets and stuff with people literally asking me what to do with it, beyond just put it on toast. And the answer was always obvious to me as a pastry chef. 

But also, I think because of producing so much jam, at a certain point you sort of divorce yourself from the edibility of your products. I don't know if this happens to everyone. But I remember working really late one night and just being starving, so hungry and not ever cluing in that I was processing a case of apples and that it’s really reasonable for me to eat one of those. You just have such a different relationship to your food at that point. It still remains actually very rare that I do eat jam on toast at all. I do bake with it a lot, so I was-

Alicia: That makes sense. 

No, it's funny, because when I was—I used to do farmers’ markets and stuff with vegan cake and cookies. People would always be like, ‘How do you not eat all of the cookies?’ It's because I made them. And so I'm looking at them-

Camilla: It’s like eating money.

Alicia: You really have that relationship to it where you really see it as a product and not like a food. Yeah, so it's an interesting thing that happens. 

Camilla: It’s kind of a shame. 

Alicia: It is a shame. I mean, I still don't really eat things that I bake. I've been eating the shortbreads that I made out of your book this week, actually, though, because I've been dying for a snack every couple of hours. So that's good. And people love them. 

Preserving is a complicated kind of science. And people think of it as complicated. And your book is very, very approachable. How did you develop your style of teaching when the conversation has to begin with botulism, but I guess that's how all food safety starts is about botulism. But how have you made this process approachable? How did you kind of get into your own style of teaching?

Camilla: Well, for the most part, I made it up as I went. To date, I've never really been to a cooking class aside from pastry school. I really do intend to go see more of what people actually do, ’cause I kind of made it up.

I was really lucky. When I started out, I had a college teacher volunteering, assisting me to learn to preserve. And so she sat in on a lesson one night and gave me pages of super helpful notes, getting people to introduce themselves, easy stuff that hadn't occurred to me. 

I mean, this is going to be a decade of teaching preserving now. And I think, I mean, it depends. My classes definitely are for everyone—or the way my writing, either, certainly. I am really curious. And I want to know exactly how preserving works so that I know what’s safe. That's what I always wanted to know and could never find the answers to. So I want to give that to people. 

But some people show up just wanting to make some—a jar of jam with their friends. There's so many different styles of cooking classes out there. And I realize that mine are heavy on the science and heavy on the info, that I try to balance that by being heavy on the jokes. And I just think it's so interesting. 

And the whole goal also is, for me, if I can be creative, that's the most important thing in my life, I think. And so I want to give that gift to people, because so often canning is—preserving generally—is seen as something really formulaic. And otherwise, it's dangerous. But if you understand the science behind it, then you can change things and know that it's safe. That's the gift I want to give to people, is to be able to judiciously use some creativity when they're making preserves. I mean, my other big goal is to lower barriers to access. 

But the other thing I really just want to communicate about my teaching style, that the idea there is I just—I know a lot of people are intimidated by canning and I think that's such a shame because for me it's such a deep pleasure. The process of it, the knowing I have a cupboard full of jars, the connection to my ancestors. And so is this thing that really connects people, I think, to their foodways, and to their—and just seasonality, certainly, and sometimes to their histories. 

I try as much as possible to make it as easy as possible to make it as adaptable as possible time wise, ways to break it up, ways to fit it into your life, because I know everyone's overworked now. Ways to get by with the most minimal equipment. Hopefully, none. So, lower economic barriers. All of that stuff I think is so important. And I try. It takes practice is the thing, like anything else. And you're never gonna—maybe you are good at the first time. But it's something that’s simply improved by repetition, and so people should stick with it. So I just want to encourage people as much as possible. That's my teaching philosophy. 

Alicia: Right. Well, it's a good one. 

Yeah, I definitely need to get into it. And I always have these intentions of getting into it. I have every Sandor Katz book so that I could learn how to make pickles. And I'm excited about your book, having it so I can make jams with different fruits that obviously—here, the fruit is so hyper seasonal. Very short windows for things like guava and passion fruit. It would make so much sense for me to preserve them. 

And I wanted to ask you about the things people are afraid of, in preserving and making jam. I mean, this might be a technical question, but what are the things that people are afraid of? Why are they afraid of them? How likely is it that things are going to go wrong, actually?

Camilla: I mean, certainly, people come to class definitely being afraid of botulism, because that's the big, scary, fatal one. I have had people attend the class who have given themselves botulism, and their friends. So it's not impossible. 

But it's very close to impossible when we're talking about jam. He made water-bath canned pesto, which is a low acid food that should not be water-bath canned. Yeah, I’d be surprised if any of his friends ever have his preserves again. But good for him for coming back to a class. 

That's the thing. That's why I think it's such a shame that actually the North American way that we're taught to can jam at home is to do the whole boiling water bath thing, because it's so unnecessary. And I think it prevents a lot of people from doing it. 

Botulism is almost completely a moot point. There's a few fruits I talk about that you can't use, but otherwise, the main thing worth dealing with is the possibility of is mold. Of course, if your jars are improperly sealed or sterilized, which we know is gross, of course. And if you scrape it off it is not gone, either. That's a good thing to know. I call it informed consent in the book, so whether or not you're going to eat it.

But at the same time, the toxicity of it, unless you have an allergy at home, you can just scrape it off, and probably you'll be fine. So there's hardly anything that can go wrong that's catastrophic.

Alicia: I wanted to ask, in the book, you mentioned some things in passing about how our grandparent’s tomatoes were more acidic, North American expectations around jam texture and how your recipes are different to that. So I wanted to ask about your kind of food philosophy, so to speak. What is your approach to sourcing ingredients, and how do you decide what to eat?

Camilla: I mean, I think I was shaped a lot working in fine dining. I'm really lucky that I got to work—I think I say it in the introduction of the book—but I went to work at a vegetable-focused restaurant for my pastry school in 2002. And I got told that that was a fad. And it was like, I shouldn't go there. And not only is that pastry chef now probably the most well known in the—in Quebec, but obviously, we all know that vegetable focus dining is here to stay. Let's hope. 

There was such a focus around seasonality. We changed the menu so much. So that really shaped me as a young cook. I mean, it is what it is, I won't touch a strawberry that's imported that's out of season. Why would I eat that when strawberry season is for enjoying strawberries? I don't need access to all things at all times. 

Definitely, that was a real challenge running a preserving business with very little capital. So a lot of the time, I ended up having to resort to frozen fruits sometimes and stuff like that just to keep up with demand and be able to make enough just to stay afloat. So in that way, when I'm teaching, certainly, I don't ever—I want to encourage people to use whatever they can use and is accessible to them. I think that's important. But for me, it's really important to, as much as possible, be working—I mean, in a perfect world—with farmers and stuff like that, with seasonal ingredients.

And using also as much of the food as possible. I mean, I think I learned that working in a—I don't remember there being a conversation around food waste when I was a cook in the early 2000s. But it was just you had to do it, because the margins are so thin that we had to use as much as we possibly could. So the strawberries that were getting sad got steamed and turned into juice, and now into the Champagne cocktail or whatever. We didn't throw anything away as much as possible. So that really got ingrained in me as well. I make jelly and I save the fruit pulp, and I put it in my kombucha and as much as possible.

Alicia: What is it like to support local food in Canada? I talk, I think, so much about it in a U.S. context, but what is the relationship to agriculture there?

Camilla: I mean, definitely, we have shorter seasons, certainly, than the majority of America. That can be challenging in some senses. At a certain point, what you have that’s local is overwintered root vegetables and apples and stuff like that. 

But, I mean, I think it varies all over the country. And I'm new to this, relatively new, to the city I live in. In the city I'm in, there's so many farmers’ markets. There's farmers’ markets every day, probably in multiple places. So you have so much access to buying directly from farmers, which I think is really important. There are cool businesses that have come up. There's one I'm really obsessed with where you can order stuff. They liaise directly with farmers and then pick, I think, and deliver straight to you. Different organizations like that.

I mean, it's so hard—at least in the circles I'm in—I think it's quite possible to be, certainly in the summer, to be buying all local basically. 

Alicia: Right. That's awesome. [Laughs.]

Wait, where are you living right now? 

Camilla: I live in Toronto. 

Alicia: Oh, cool. I haven’t been there.

Camilla: Oh, well, I don't know how it is as a visitor. I really like living her. I mean, it's one of the most expensive cities in Canada, unfortunately. That's very challenging, but living here—I spent a lot of my life in Montreal, where there's a real culture of preserving food and transforming food. And I lived right by the market where they sell all the bushels of things. And in summary, you just buy huge quantities, and everyone's doing it. 

And here, it's a lot of people in condos and all the farmers’ market sell just pints of things. That's the biggest amount you can get, has been confounding me since I moved here. So I just got a tip off on a more old-school market that does the real granny stuff that I'm very looking forward to visiting on Saturday.

Alicia: Nice.

Well, for you is cooking a political act?

Camilla: I think, yes. I mean, in as much as everything, I think, in a sense that we do is so undergirded by all of these systems. And there's so much potential in the path of where our food is grown, and all the ways it comes to our kitchens and our tables for abuse and injustice and—

So, yes, I think, certainly it's political. I try to make good choices. We just all have such different access, whether it's financially or mobility, or all these different things to be able to make the most ideal choices, right? 

But yeah, definitely, I think it is. And just in a broader sense, I suppose it's not exactly political. But what I think drew me to cooking, besides loving to eat, obviously, is just the spirit of generosity that I think—well, hospitality generally has. And I think, I mean, I think we really saw it in the pandemic so much with—there's so many pastry chefs raising money and stuff like that. Because I think that is the, this-

I mean, there's so many things obviously wrong with the industry. Obviously, hospitality as being a pure expression of generosity is not the reality, as is so often the case. But I do think that that is where a lot of people are coming from, at the heart of it, hopefully. [Laughs.]

I do think cooking is political. I struggle a lot with whether what I'm doing is explicitly political enough. So many of the people around me, my partner and my friends, have these very concrete jobs where they're obviously helping people, like harm reduction workers and nurses and midwives and doctors and stuff, that I get insecure sometimes that what I do is indulgent and unnecessary, and all these things.

I really think that's not true. I mean, I think people need delicious, beautiful things in their lives. But also, like I said, I try to bring the spirit of really wanting to bring people in and be able to—I mean, obviously, because I'm a business also, that complicates matters, of course. But you know, if anyone ever wrote to me and said they wanted to take a class and they didn't have enough money, I mean, I’d tell them, ‘Of course.’

But yeah, it's hard. It's hard. I try, and as much as I can by donating portions of sales from classes and stuff to things and trying to engage politically through my work as much as I can. But I guess it never feels like enough, because everything's just so messy. [Laughs.]

And then, just politically, I mean, it's the end of Pride Month, right? Which I think should, maybe isn't always anymore, but is a political thing. And I'm queer. And I think visibility is so important, and representation. And I didn't know, any hardly queer cookbook authors, I think, when I was a younger cook. And so there's also this struggle to balance—

I am not someone that people easily identify as being queer. And I think I struggle with that a bit, and wanting to represent my community, but also not—it never came up much in my book because it’s about jam making. It only came up as much, I think, as it's just a natural part of me.

So yes, that is also complicated. [Laughter.]

Alicia: Well, thank you. Thank you so much again for taking the time. 

Camilla: Oh, thank you. I’m just such a big fan of you. It's a real pleasure to—I feel very excited. Thank you so much.