confiture

When I went to Paris a year ago with my niece Hannah, I brought back some confiture by Christine Ferber. She makes some of the most prized jellies and jams in all of France. They’re expensive; those little jars you see above, which I brought back from that trip, cost about $9 or $10 each at the exchange rate back then. But oh, so very worth it. It’s hard to describe the intensity of Ferber’s confitures, which are difficult to impossible to find in the US. We brought back five jars from our trip to Paris last fall, and we’re just now on the last one; we have been stretching them out for all this time, something that’s easy to do because they are like jellied fruit electricity. A little Ferber confiture goes a very long way. And the pleasure — man, it’s such a special, special taste.

One of my readers sends a New York Times story about Christine Ferber and her little shop in her Alsatian ancestral village of Niedermorschwihr, and it turns out her story is even more special than I knew. Excerpts:

Her secret to success: nothing leaves the shop without her approval. At any one time, Ms. Ferber can be checking a strawberry sponge cake, a huge copper pot of cherry jam, a rose-petal-decorated Easter egg, or a pile of glazed-ham sandwiches.

“I don’t even see it as a job,” she says while assembling a mille-feuille, the French pâtisserie classic with its layers of puff pastry and custard creme. “I love every single thing about my day.”

For the average person, that seems hard to believe. Six days a week — seven before major holidays, when demand increases — she wakes up between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m., drives the short distance from her house to the shop, and gets to the kitchen by 5:30 a.m. at the latest. “The two essentials that I need to create beautiful things are time and patience,” she says. Every day is a long day; she is never in bed before 10 p.m.

Ms. Ferber says she has found that taking her time is key to success: “The best way to fall is by jumping a step.” And how she creates jam is a good illustration of that philosophy. It is a long and meticulous process, starting with the fruit, which usually comes from local growers, many of whom have been working with the Ferbers for 20 years or more.

Tradition, care, love of craft — this is a beautiful thing. More:

Ms. Ferber says she is not in business for the money or fame, but she is happy the company is doing well and is conscious of the opportunity that may be passing by. “I could move to Paris, open shops around the world and be rich and famous,” she says, “but I don’t want that.”

Instead, the Parisian pastry star Pierre Hermé — whose mother was born in Niedermorschwihr — sells Ms. Ferber’s jam in the French capital for her. “What makes Christine Ferber is the familiar and professional bubble she created around herself. She wouldn’t be able to recreate that in Paris,” Mr. Hermé says.

The two chefs met in their late teens, while Ms. Ferber was training in Paris. “When she went back to the village and told her father she wanted to make jam, he said no, claiming it wouldn’t sell,” Mr. Hermé says. “I insisted she not listen to him, and now I don’t know anyone in the world who makes jam like she does.” He says her secret is putting a lot of love into her work. “That’s why it’s always so good.”

Julie and I have talked about if we ever make it back to France, we’d love to go visit Alsace, for the food and the wine, but especially to go visit Mme. Ferber’s shop, and admire her.

Readers, if you’re ever in Paris, you can buy Christine Ferber’s confiture at La Grande Epicerie, on the rue du Bac. Again, not cheap, but what a precious souvenir of France. You will cherish it for as long as you can make it last.

UPDATE: Sam M. wants to know why it’s bad for, say, a corporate lawyer to spend crazy long hours at the office, but it’s fine for an artisanal jam-maker to be so devoted to her craft. Great question! My attempt in the combox to think through this. Help me out here:

Sam, that’s actually a good question you ask. Why does Ferber’s dedication to her craft seem praiseworthy to me — or at least worthy of qualified praise — but I wouldn’t feel that way if she were a corporate lawyer dedicated to her work.

Partly I think it’s because her work is creative. As somebody whose work is creative, I understand intuitively how writing doesn’t feel like work to me. When I get in the zone, I don’t notice the passing of time. My suspicion is that Ferber is like that too, with her jams. She is an artisan.

If she had other responsibilities — say, to a family — then I would say that she has to find a way to curb herself to bring more balance to her life. This is something I struggle with myself. But my guess is she isn’t married, and doesn’t have a family.

Still, that leaves the question of why it’s okay — or rather, more okay — for her to work such long hours in her kitchen, but not okay — or not as okay — for a corporate lawyer to do the same. Is that an aesthetic prejudice on my part? Corporate lawyers produce paperwork, in my view — though one could certainly say that if not for the detail work they do, the kind of work that someone of my temperament and skills cannot do, the creative work of industry wouldn’t be possible. After all, my publisher has lawyers in house to negotiate book contracts, without which I couldn’t publish my creative work.

I’m thinking out loud here, but maybe it’s that I understand the kind of temperament that becomes consumed with creative work. That’s not a defense, just an explanation. Anyway, I think it’s possible to praise Ferber’s creations while disapproving of the long hours she puts in at the office. If Ferber is devoting herself to her art **to escape life**, in the way that some workaholics stay very late at the office to get away from difficulties and challenges at home, then it’s definitely a problem.

But how do we draw the line between a wholesale dedication to one’s art or craft, and workaholic dysfunction? Does it depend on whether or not the task at hand helps the individual and those depending on her thrive? What constitutes thriving?

We could even broaden the inquiry. My sister Ruthie never understood why I left home. A big part of the reason I did was to pursue my vocation as a writer. For Ruthie, the good life involved a much bigger emphasis on Home than it did for me. But then, she could pursue her vocation — teaching — from home, in a way I couldn’t really pursue my journalism vocation, at least not till now. For me, the good life (Good Life) typically involves a spouse and children, but it’s clear that not everybody is meant to have a spouse, or even if married, to have kids. Some people are called to life as a priest, a monk, or a nun. Some people are just suited to the single state. The question, then, becomes one of the person asking themselves deep questions about their calling. If Christine Ferber were a nun doing charity work, her dedication to her vocation would be seen as heroic. She’s a single, middle-aged maker of some of the world’s best jam; that may not be heroic, exactly, but isn’t her dedication admirable? At least in theory? Under what conditions would her dedication be worthy of admiration, and under what conditions would it be a sign of dysfunction?