How sweet it is: The family that makes jam together, sticks together
How did a cardiologist, a photographer and a college student with a degree in Buddhist philosophy end up co-launching a food-based business? The story starts five generations earlier in Europe.
Romanian-born Irinel Stegaru-MacLaughlin has fond memories of making jam during her childhood in Germany, under the supervision of her cardiologist mother, Dr. Beatrice Stegaru. They cooked using traditional recipes passed down through the women in their family. Irinel eventually would become a photographer by trade, and never thought this family pastime would play a part in her career arc, much less as a full-fledged business. Irinel and Beatrice found their way to the dreamily named Swan Lake, near New York's Catskill Mountains, along with Irinel's husband Geoff MacLaughlin, and their daughter, Maya.
When Maya matriculated to Bard College, she developed the idea to sell jam at a winter market in order to earn extra money. She used some of the family's blueberry-black currant and strawberry-balsamic recipes. Much to the family’s surprise, the jams were a hit. Back at Bard, Maya began teaching jam-making to classmates. Maya’s Jams was born.
The three generations of women — Beatrice, Irinel and Maya — share all responsibilities for the business, including picking and sourcing the fruit, and cooking the product at Hot Bread Kitchen's commercial facilities in Harlem, N.Y.
Irinel speaks to the strengths of working with family: “The three of us are working together, and have one goal in mind: to make healthy, great tasting preserves that people will enjoy as much as we do. To work in the family is so much more powerful,” she said. The advantage of having three generations involved is everyone has a unique cultural-historical perspective, and they work especially hard to find common solutions together.
One thing all three women share is a passion for recipes that are free of anything artificial, including preservatives and high-fructose corn syrup, instead emphasizing quality ingredients and Old World flavors. The result is intoxicating. “When we cook in the kitchen, it starts to have fruit aroma and flavors — memories from my childhood and my daughter’s childhood,” she said. “It’s fascinating how a smell can trigger a memory and transport you back in time, sometimes even more than a visual image.”
With combinations such as raspberry-hot chili, pear-lemon, peach-fig, apricot-Madagascar vanilla, and roasted garlic-peach, as well as preserves featuring harder-to-find heirloom fruits such as quince and currants, all products involve meticulous testing before going to market, and feature fruit sourced right in the Hudson Valley/Catskills region, some of which are organically grown on-site in orchards and berry patches on the family’s property.
What’s surprised Irinel the most since starting Maya’s Jams was the positive reception the products have seen so far. The company's most recent accolade is a Gold Star award from the UK’s Great Taste competition, (one of the most prestigious international awards in specialty food) for its Apple Quince Jam — a huge honor from a country that values highly, and knows well, its preserves. The secret, according to Irinel, is scaling back on the sugar in order to truly bring out the fruits’ flavors; the Maya's Jams recipes contain approximately a quarter of what’s typically found in more commercially branded products. “People are surprised they’re not very sweet,” said Irinel. “We hear a lot from customers that our products have changed their opinions on jam.” These are jams that have more applications than just spreading on toast. The Maya's Jams team recommends using their goods as glazes on meats, as additions to homemade salad dressings, or as pairings with cheeses and savory dishes. And, of course, they are best enjoyed when shared with family.
Try the wonderful range of Maya's Jams, available on the Maya's Jams website.