I am always thrilled when I discover products made on PEI. I recently paid a visit to the small commercial kitchen of J.J. Stewart Foods and Soda Company in Stratford, PEI, where I met with owners and sole employees of the company, Heather and Thom MacMillan.
Under the brand label of J.J. Stewart, the MacMillans are producers and purveyors of a number of fine food products that includes preserves, flavoured mustards, sauces, pickles, salsa, lemonade, sodas and, of course, their signature artisan root beer.
While I was anxious to find out more about the products they make, I was first curious to learn about J.J. Stewart and his connection to the company.
The MacMillans tell me that the J.J. Stewart branding came about because of the root beer they were making. They have been producing their artisan root beer since 2009. When they were searching for a brand name for it, they discovered that Heather’s grandfather, John James Stewart, made and sold root beer in the early 1900s in his general store in Wood Islands, PEI. So, with the lineage and history, it seemed only fitting that their root beer should bear his name.
So, that explains the root beer but what prompted the production of the sauces, preserves, maple mustards, and pickles? The MacMillans have been in the tourism business for many years. They decided it was time to downsize and slow down so they sold their hotel business in Wood Islands and moved to Charlottetown. However, their retirement was short-lived as their lifelong entrepreneurial spirit was still prompting them to do something else. Both like to cook and when the Embers Company in Kinkora, PEI, became available for sale about three years ago, they bought it along with rights to the recipes for specialty food condiments that were already well-known and received on the market. They have continued to produce those items as well as develop, test, and market new items, like Peanut Butter and Cranberry Champagne Jam with Ginger, under the J.J. Stewart label.
The dividing line between mass-produced mustards, preserves, and sauces and those produced by the MacMillans lies in the care and attention to detail that can only come with hand-producing small batch quantities, using high quality ingredients, and adhering to a strict individual quality control process.
The difference can also be discerned in the taste and flavour when pure ingredients are used. Wherever possible, the MacMillans use regionally-produced products. Thom says he can actually pinpoint the berry field at Penny’s Farms in Belfast, PEI, where the strawberries are picked for the J.J. Stewart Strawberry Preserves! The berries for their blueberry products come from Wyman’s near Morell and the cranberries and raspberries are locally sourced as well. Cucumbers for their mustard pickles come from local roadside farm stands which offer the freshest of garden vegetables. The maple syrup comes from Acadian Maple Products in nearby Nova Scotia. J.J. Stewart products have become synonymous with quality so much so that the MacMillans tell me that people buy their preserves by the case in the summer and their freshly-made mustard pickles are a fall favourite which customers also buy by the case to have as their winter supply.
Like any food product produced and marketed for sale on PEI, the MacMillans are subject to food regulation and provincial inspection processes to ensure their products are safe for the market.
The artisan foods produced by the MacMillans are a perfect blend of modern and traditional fare. Under the J.J. Stewart label that bears his picture, look for modern products like blueberry salsa and blueberry barbeque sauce and a number of flavoured mustards along with old favorites like mustard pickles and raspberry and strawberry preserves.
With distinctive flavour pairings like Dill and Chardonnay Maple Mustard and Wild Blueberry Sauce with Grand Marnier, for example, the J.J. Stewart line of products brings together the best flavour combinations. J.J. Stewart products are both delicious and very versatile. Whether used independently on their own as they are or incorporated as an ingredient into a recipe, these quality products are palette pleasers.
Over the next while, follow my blog postings as I use a number of their products in different recipes.
I am sure J.J. Stewart would have been happy to sell these products in his general store and he would, no doubt, be both thrilled and proud to know that his descendents are carrying on the tradition of producing artisanal root beer and other tasty products. The J.J. Stewart speciality item products are available in select locations in the Maritimes. For example, they can be purchased at the PEI Co. Store in Charlottetown’s Confederation Court Mall, at Riverview Country Market in Charlottetown, and at several other locations across the Island as well as at Sugar Moon Farms in Truro, Nova Scotia.
Each Saturday morning, you can also find Thom at his booth at the Charlottetown Farmers Market where sales are brisk and you’ll find regular customers returning week after week to pick up their favorite J.J. Stewart products. Farmers markets are great venues for customers and producers to meet and interact. In fact, Thom says he gets the greatest feedback and new product ideas from his regular Saturday morning customers. Be sure to drop by the Farmers Market and taste the J.J. Stewart products at the tasting bar set up in their booth.
In the summer months, their products are also sold in their own J.J. Stewart Mercantile Store in Cavendish, PEI. Additionally, products are also available online at www.jjstewartfoods.com and they ship across North America.
For my feature recipe today using a J.J. Stewart product, I have chosen to use their Raspberry Preserves in old-fashioned vintage jam squares. For this recipe, you need to use a superior quality jam or preserves because that is what gives the square its flavour. Red jams or preserves work best because, for plate presentation purposes, they are the most showy. I found the J.J. Stewart Raspberry Preserves to be a nice, thick consistency which is necessary in order for it to stick to the dough and not be runny when the squares are cut.
My Island Bistro Kitchen’s
Old-fashioned Jam Squares
These are an old-fashioned favourite that I grew up with. They are easy to make and take common ingredients. While any kind of jam may be used, they are most showy when red jam (preserves) is chosen.
⅓ cup butter
1 tsp vanilla
½ tsp almond flavoring
½ cup white sugar
1 cup + 2 tbsp all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
¼ tsp cinnamon
⅛ tsp cardamom
Finely grated rind of 1 lemon
½ cup J.J. Stewart Raspberry Preserves
Preheat oven to 350°.
Prepare 8”x8” pan by lining with parchment paper.
With electric mixer, beat butter well. Beat in egg, vanilla, and almond flavouring. Mixture will appear lumpy.
Sift and mix together sugar, flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, and cardamom.
Grate the rind of one lemon. Stir in grated lemon rind.
Add dry ingredients to butter-egg mixture and blend thoroughly.
Gather up dough and shape dough into a small oblong shape.
Cut off about ⅓ of the dough and place in freezer for 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, press remaining ⅔ dough into prepared pan. Place pan in freezer.
When the reserved dough has been in the freezer for 15 minutes remove both reserved dough and the pan from the freezer. Evenly spread the ½ cup raspberry preserves over dough in pan.
Using a grater, grate the chilled and reserved 1/3 dough evenly over the jam.
Bake for 30-35 minutes or until topping on square is lightly golden in color.
Let square cool completely in pan before removing and cutting into 16 squares.
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