Jammin’ with London Borough of Jam’s Lillie O’Brien
08 September, 2016
If you've ever drifted past the antique shops and food stalls of Hackney's Chatsworth Road at the weekend, you may have noticed a little shop tucked away just off the main street. The exterior is blue with white lettering spelling out 'LBJ'. Inside, braided wicker baskets and bunches of dried flowers hang above a wooden table of folded linen napkins, candles and Portuguese ceramics. The shelves are packed with sauces, oils and pickles. It's like an adult sweet shop, promising to make your life infinitely better with terracotta plant pots and bars of organic hand soap. But the centrepiece has got to be the stacks of gold-lidded glass jars filled with every type of jam imaginable, which owner Lillie O'Brien makes during the week to sell at the weekends.
Raised in Melbourne, Lillie worked as the pastry chef at the legendary St John Bread & Wine for four years. Her jams are all seasonal - she loves the idea of stewing and bottling fruit and vegetables when they are at their best. The flavours are punchy and imaginative, from lemon and vanilla bean to rhubarb and cardamom, tangy pickled strawberry or blackberry with bay leaves. With her inventive conserves, she has joined a small brigade of Londoners breathing new life into the age-old art of preserving. We paid a visit to Lillie at her Hackney house, where a copper pan of apricot and camomile jam popped and gurgled on the stove. In her small, sweet-smelling kitchen she told us all about London Borough of Jam, a shop as neighbourly and warm as its owner.
Tell us a bit about life before London Borough of Jam. What led you to it?
Before I started LBJ I was a chef and trained in Melbourne. I cooked there for six years before going to live in Japan for a year, then decided to move to the UK and try my luck in a few kitchens here. I heard there was a pastry position going at St John Bread & Wine so I went in met head chef James Lowe, had a trial the next day with head pastry honcho Justin Gellatly and the next thing I knew I was working in pastry! I remember sitting at The Eagle in Farringdon with the new St John cookbook Beyond Nose to Tail, staring at a picture of Barbie with liver wings thinking this had to be the coolest place to work. I stayed for four years and loved it.
Where did your interest in jam come from?
My mum always made marmalade and jellies but weirdly, never made jam - I need to ask her about this actually! It wasn't until St John that I really started to understand the seasons and preserving, as we'd have limited supplies and then a glut. I was basically only allowed to use apples, lemons and chocolate in winter - knowing that we had strawberry jam in the cellar was liquid gold!
What was the moment you realised you wanted to make a go of London Borough of Jam?
I reached a point in my early 30s when I realised I didn't want to work double shifts on a Sunday anymore, nor did I want to be a head chef or own my own restaurant. I started making jam at home as a hobby and testing it out at markets. I had great feedback and started to get really excited. There is something so lovely about preserving a season in a jar.
Do you think people are becoming more interested in preserving food? Is it trendy or just resourceful?
I think it used to be resourceful but now it's becoming trendy. When I moved to east London 10 years ago you couldn't get anything - coming from such strong café culture in Melbourne I was shocked. Climpson's on Broadway Market was the only place to get a decent sandwich and coffee, otherwise we'd go to Flat White or Bar Italia in Soho. St John was one of the few places doing sourdough - nobody knew what it was back then!
Is jam easier to make than people think?
YES! People overthink it and end up getting really stressed and ruining it. Keep your sugar at the right levels and it will give you some leeway to cook it for a bit longer. You need the right saucepan as anything with a thin base will just catch, and of course, good quality fruit. Strong heat and quick cooking is the key.
What have been the greatest challenges with starting up your own business?
Starting out with no investment was my biggest challenge but I'm now starting to see that this was a positive. I never rushed as I didn't have the money to accelerate, and it's given me a better understanding of the business.
And what has been the high point so far?
I'm hoping this year will be a high point as I have spent the last few months working with a very small distributor in Japan who's going to sell my jam there. It has always been a dream because it's one of my favourite countries - I feel like I really connect with the Japanese people and they understand what I am trying to achieve.
Tell us about the shop. Why is Chatsworth Road a great place to have it?
I never set out to have a shop but the small space became available and as I only lived on the next street it was hard to say no. The idea was to have a space which could also be used for storage. NI really want to put a kitchen in there so I can hold jam workshops. I feel so lucky to have come across the space before all the rent went up and Chatsworth Road became so popular.
Where do you like to go on Chatsworth Road?
Coffee at 46b is my favourite. I am also really looking forward to the arrival of the new Jim's café which is being taken over by the Wilton Way guys and Nuno Mendes (of Taberna do Mercado). A chef I also used to work with at St John is doing the food which is exciting.
What are some flavours you are coming up with at the moment?
I am obsessed with loganberries because they're sharp and work so well with sugar. I haven't had time to go to my favourite farm in Kent to get them but an amazing customer has been cycling up from South London for the past four weeks to deliver some. In return, I'm making a year's supply of jam for him. In terms of researching flavour, I usually go out into my garden and see what is growing. I've got loads of lemon verbena, rose geranium, angelica and fig leaves this year as my garden becomes more established.
What's is your favourite way to eat jam?
I'm not a massive toast person so tend to have it on yoghurt in summer and porridge. And I love Victoria sponge…
Tell us about your daily routine at London Borough of Jam.
I have recently moved the main part of my jam production to a larger kitchen in Somerset because I need more space now I'm going to be exporting to Japan. This has also enabled me to focus more on limited editions and recipe testing at home. I try to do my admin jobs on Monday and Tuesday so the rest of the week I can make jam at home. I also have to keep an eye on the shop, ordering and stock control - even though it's only open at the weekend it still takes up a lot of time!