Lisa Swarbrick is the jam lady. Her jams and jellies have been winning ribbons at The Royal Agricultural Winter Fair for over two decades, and The Royal’s 100th anniversary in 2022 will mark her 25th year as a competitor, something she is incredibly proud of. She is a drama teacher by day and a self-described “jammer” and country girl at heart. Her motto, “jam brings joy,” is indeed brought to life when she was speaking to Harrowsmith about her passion.
HS: How did you get started making jam?
LS: Ever since I was little, I would spend every summer at my family’s farm in Chichester, Quebec. During the summer when I was nine, a wise woman moved in next door and she could tell you every herb, every plant and she could take up something on the side of the road and grow it or make it into something. That June, I started wild strawberry picking in the ditches, on hills, and on the banks of lakes. I’d be up to my knees in hay picking wild strawberries. In July, I was picking wild raspberries. I was fascinated by her and would join her in her kitchen to make jam. Sometimes the other kids were outside playing, and I’d be in the kitchen helping her on the woodstove (she had an electric one too).
Making jam was always something special to me and in 1990, when I bought a little house in Toronto’s East York neighbourhood and had a humongous double backyard full of peaches, nectarines, blackberries mulberries trees and raspberries and a huge strawberry patch, I started making jam again. There was so much fruit that I couldn’t, with good conscious, let all of this food go to waste. And soon after, I started driving just a bit north of Toronto to Stouffville, Ontario to find farm side stalls that were selling strawberries and raspberries.
HS: How many jars do you make a year?
LS: Usually, I make 75 to 300 each year though last year it was closer to 50. It was a good year and everything I did turned out well.
HS: When did you first enter your jam in the Royal Winter Agricultural Fair and what prompted you to do it?
LS: As a teacher, I would take the kids to The Royal every year along with my friend and colleague Mr. Nix. In 1998 I was thinking to myself that I wanted to prepare the kids for this visit so they would get excited and learn that we could enter the agricultural competition for jam, so we made a strawberry jam and a raspberry jelly with the kids. We made it over an open fire! When we went to the show on the opening day (the best day to go!) we learned that we won 4th place for our strawberry jam and 5th place for our raspberry jelly. The kids were so excited, and so was I and that’s when I decided that I was going to do this every year, and I have for 24 years now and sometimes winning six or seven ribbons each year.
For me, holding on to my heritage that really means something. I’ve been a city girl for 35 years now but I will always be the country girl in Chichester, Quebec. I rebuilt a farmhouse to make sure that we didn’t lose that heritage and jam and jelly are a big part of that.Lisa Swarbrick
HS: How many years have you won ribbons at The Royal?
LS: Twenty-two out of 24 years so far.
HS: What was your favourite year at The Royal?
LS: 2007 was the year that I was most proud of. Martha Stewart was a judge for the show and I won first prize for my raspberry jelly. And it won the Bernardin Canada judges choice too so my name is on that big glass trophy. I won a whole bunch of ribbons that year. Lots of firsts and seconds.
HS: So, what was the secret?
LS: I think the secret is personal energy from the person making it and the fruit. So, if you have the right fruit and you have the right personal energy and you’re really intentional about it, it just happens. And you train yourself to know when it’s rolling in the pot just right and to watch for the bubbles to turn to that light mother-of-pearl rainbow. There are certain things you just know, and you also have to know your stove well too — I cook on a stainless LG gas stove at home and my beloved electric Heartland stove at the farm.
I am always considering how long I should leave the berries out and what I should do after I wash them… Should I put them in the fridge? …Are we at that point, or should I leave them out? And I’m very specific about what I use. I only use vintage Pyrex glass measuring cups. There are certain pots that work better than others. I know by looking and listening… I am obsessive, and it is fun. I like having the jars all lined up after. ̈And I display them in antique wooden jam cupboards that my great-grandfather made. I have one at my house in Toronto and two at the farm.
HS: Do you have a type of jam or jelly that wins more awards than others?
LS: I often enter first-pick jam for strawberries. I think I do it because I’m so enthusiastic and pour all the best energy I have into that jam. But I’ve also won for late-season jams too when the berries are so dark.
HS: What kind of jam do you make after the strawberry season is over?
LS: When I get through the strawberry season I’m at the top of my game, so by the time raspberries roll around I’m whipping it up. I’ll mix it up with strawberry rhubarb and I’ve even done blueberry rhubarb. I get creative mid-summer and I play more. I make one from every berry on my farm — gooseberries, black currants (both are my great grandmother’s plants), red currants, ̈blueberries, blackberries, strawberries and raspberries. I call it Farm Berry Jam.
HS: What are your predictions for the berries this year?
LS: I remember last time we had a really hard winter, there were not as many strawberries, but there was a crazy amount of raspberries. We are lucky in Canada that we have farmers who really know how to grow fantastic fruit. As a “jammer,” I support all of my local farmers and farmers’ markets who always have amazing produce.
Jennifer Reynolds, our Editor-in-Chief, is a long-time authority in gardening, do-it-yourself projects, urban sustainability, parenting, placemaking and community matters. Her features and columns have been published in Canadian Living, Canadian Family, Gardening Life, House & Home, Globe & Mail, National Post, Toronto Star & more. Plus, her designs and expertise have been featured on dozens of HGTV, W Network and CTV shows.