Elizabeth Madden, the founder of Rare Bird Preserves, started preserving fruit – and loving it -- while going to pastry school in France.
Madden has an art background, At some point, she remembers, her art works became too “conceptual.” Making jam held an allure, she told me, because “it so simple, so elemental, and the colors of the fruit are so beautiful. When you’re making jam, you’re making a kind of art because you’re taking something that’s fleeting and preserving it.”
Madden spent two years at Charlie Trotter’s quick-service restaurant, Trotter’s to Go. The kitchens of Trotter have been a crucible for some of Chicago’s great chefs, including Grant Achatz (Alinea, Next, Aviary), Giuseppe Tentori (Boka, G&T Fish and Oyster) and Homaro Cantu (Moto, ING). No one who works for Trotter would say he is anything less than a perfectionist, and Madden believes “his idea of excellence never leaves you.” That rigorous insistence on the best is reflected in Madden’s Rare Bird Preserves.
Now operating out of a commercial kitchen on Chicago Avenue in Oak Park, Rare Bird Preserves maintains the time-honored tradition of preparing jam from fresh, whole fruit (and that’s the difference between jam and jelly; the latter uses fruit juice).
Rare Bird preserves are an artisanal product, relying upon the fruits that come ripe across the seasons. There are different offerings in spring, summer, autumn and winter. Right now, preserves are being made containing in-season fruits like rhubarb and strawberry; this summer, Madden will start turning out preserves of blueberry, lavender, apricot and other warmer weather fruits.
In keeping with her focus on the old ways, Madden does not use commercial pectin, which is the agent that gels the fruit mixture. Pectin occurs naturally in apples, apricots and citrus fruits, and Madden extracts her own pectin from the fruits she uses to make preserves.
Probably my favorite of the Rare Bird Preserves is the Lemon Curd, which comes out in the winter but is usually available throughout the year at local stores like Marion Street Cheese Market (100 S. Marion) and Todd & Holland Tea Company (7311 Madison, Forest Park). This a creamy confection, with distinct yet not aggressive citrus sourness, natural fruit sweetness and a brilliant yellow color. Traditionally, you’d eat this curd on scones, but I could also imagine it being an excellent compliment to pancakes or waffles.
Rare Bird Preserves are artisanal, exceptional products. Made in Oak Park.