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Correction to This Article
This Sept. 15 Food article misspelled the name of a Sauternes. It is Chateau d'Yquem.

The Hunt For Little Scarlet

By Bonnie S. Benwick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 15, 2004; Page F01

Sometimes when you get to the bottom of a jar you can still find something to savor. The fact that this story is about a particular brand of strawberry preserve makes the discovery sweet enough to serve on toast.

Little Scarlet, the jar of the moment, has its devotees. Tastefully labeled "By Appointment To Her Majesty the Queen Jam and Marmalade Manufacturers," it is but 12 ounces of a century-old recipe of semi-precious berries, sugar, pectin and citric acid. It is enjoyed by the swank set at posh hotels, and by the rest of us who can afford such small luxury. It has been the most expensive brand on the jam aisle; it happens to be worth the $10 to $13 it now goes for in select Washington stores.

(Julia Ewan - The Washington Post)

But its availability is really where this story begins.

On one out of every three trips to buy Little Scarlet, over the course of 20 years, I have been dismayed by its conspicuous absence -- an empty space among the rows of Seedless Raspberry, Black Currant Jelly, Lemon Curd and a few dozen others, all made by the estimable Wilkin & Sons Ltd. I chalked it up to the good taste of zealous consumers with big pantries.

Tiptree Little Scarlet Preserve, however, is the limited-edition lithograph, the edible essence of a claret-colored Bentley. Near the village of Tiptree in Essex, about an hour's drive northeast of London, Fragaria virginiana strawberries hang low and luscious in an uncovered portion of Wilkin & Sons fruit fields. Originally cultivated in the United States, the plants were brought to England following a Wilkin world tour circa 1900. Little Scarlets, as they are known because of their size and color, must be picked over a three-week period starting in mid-June. A pound of them takes five times longer to pick than a pound of regular strawberries, according to Ian Thurgood, the company's sales director.

"The plants are barely cultivated and are unpredictable croppers," he says. "We often think it is madness to grow them commercially!" Thurgood says that Wilkin & Sons knows of no other operation in the world that grows and processes Little Scarlets.

So the 119-year-old company of 300 employees hires temporary extra hands. Some are students from eastern Europe, who come over for just such work, and are put up in housing owned by Wilkin & Sons. The rest of the pickers are that very British band of working-holiday caravaners -- especially retirees -- who set up at a campsite also provided for free by the jam makers. The caravaners can pick fruit as long as they like, usually anywhere from one to five hours each day during the two-month stretch. The workers are encouraged to breathe the fresh air and take walks in the English countryside.

Some of them have been coming to Tiptree for more than four decades, like Monica Purdy of the neighboring village of Goldhanger to the south. On a link through www.tiptree.com, you can see a snap of Sylvia and Fred Rowbottom being welcomed into the 20-year members' Strawberry Club by company president Peter Wilkin. "Gentlemen receive a special tie, and ladies an elegant pin . . . exclusive to Strawberry Club members."

Kinda charming.

This summer, Wilkin & Sons held a pickers' race for a local charity, to see who could collect the most Little Scarlets in large, flat plastic panniers. The 80 participants included an "enthusiastic" 90-year-old returnee and pickers who came from Siberia and Africa. They picked 407 pounds total in one hour's time.

Once the fruit is harvested, Thurgood says, it is brought to the factory where overripe and blemished berries are sorted out by hand. The fruit is cooked with sugar in small batches. "The flavor and wholeness [of the berries] varies from season to season, rather like a good wine," he says. But the preserve is always made from fresh fruit.

The hot preserve is filled into glass jars, which are sent swirling on a conveyor system that cools them as they go. The full jars are inverted to sterilize the head space directly beneath the cap and to evenly distribute the contents. After a few more steps, when the jars are right-side up again, the final inspection still called "candling" takes place. Lighted candles used to be held behind each jar to check the contents; a bright electric light does that task today.

The company's biggest overseas markets are Japan, Germany and the United States. Little Scarlet is sold in some 60 countries. While the preserve is a "major product for us," Thurgood says, "we have struggled to produce four or five months' stock. We find ourselves in the unfortunate situation of having to refuse to supply to our potentially biggest U.K. customers." Wilkin & Sons has recently added more acres of the berries, but there are no plans to compromise or ramp up Little Scarlet manufacture.

And there you have it. Adherence to quality, not necessarily avid gourmands, accounts for Little Scarlet's limited supply.

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