Blanka Milfaitová’s famous marmalade mini-manufacture is a dream come true. Her jams, produced in a small village in the Šumava mountains have won her the title of the World’s Best Artisan Marmalade Maker, the 2013 gold medal at the World Marmalade Awards and the Double Gold Star at the Great Taste Awards. Right now Blanka is on a European Marmalade Expedition making marmalade from local produce in 35 countries around Europe.
When Blanka Milfaitová turned her family home in the Šumava Mountains into a small, cozy coffee house she was fulfilling her childhood dream – to run a place of her own where she offered people good, honest country food in a homey atmosphere. Her freshly brewed coffee and home-made fruit cakes at Slunečná kavárna – the Sunny Coffee house – attracted both locals and tourists and gave her the idea to expand the small business.
She started offering her home-made jams and demand for them was such that in 2012 she set up a mini-manufacture called “Our Goodies”– a small family business with just two employees who made jams, marmalades and syrups from scratch as they were made for centuries - processing mainly regional fruit of the highest quality from neighbouring farms, using spices, mountain honey and herbs. She says the secret of her success is simple.
“The essential thing is to use top quality produce – we use only the best fruit available– and make everything by hand. There are no shortcuts. It involves manual cleaning of the fruit, manual cutting and cooking. I use a cutting board, a knife and ladle. No technology to make my life easier. The process is time consuming, but it pays off. And, of course, it is a labour of love – it shows when you do it with joy.”
Soon demand for her products and her own fantasy in concocting new recipes took her further –she started buying southern citrus fruits directly from Italian plantations in Calabria, Amalfi, and Sicily where she personally helped select and pick the fruit. Her lemon marmalade –one of her specialties – was double gold winner at the Dalemain Marmalade World Festival held in Cumbria in February of last year and was among the selected marmalades sold at Fortnum and Mason –from where it found its way to the British royal table. The fact that her marmalades have won her international acclaim, and more than a dozen gold, silver and bronze medals at international competitions, leaves Blanka unfazed.
“Of course, winning medals is pleasing and it is important for business, but it is not the most important thing for me. What makes it all worthwhile is when people taste my marmalade at an open air stall and say “Oh, this is really delicious” and then buy several jars right away. Or people write to tell me that they received one of my marmalades as a gift and ate the whole jar with a coffee spoon right there and then after tasting it. That brings me the greatest joy of all. ”
Her marmalades, sold in the cult Weck jars with glass lids, hand-filled of course, are labelled Moje dobrá marmeláda or My great marmalade. They are sold at just two locations – not counting farmers’ markets – Blanka’s Šumava coffee house, which she still runs despite the fact that marmalades have now taken over her life –and a small store in Prague. Despite getting numerous offers to expand her business and make a fortune Blanka has decided to keep her manufacture small and select.
“Of course, when I started winning medals and getting international recognition I got numerous offers to deliver to supermarket chains or gourmet stores abroad. I decided not to follow that path. It would have forced me to expand in a big way and I think it would have robbed me of the joy of my work to do that.”
Blanka likes to be in touch with her customers and see them enjoying her products, which is mainly what attracted her to the idea of making marmalades for people across Europe –cooking for an audience and using local fruits and spices.
At the start of this year, she, her boyfriend and manager Pavel and her eight-month-old daughter Eliška embarked on a year-long European Marmalade Expedition across 35 European states. She explains how the idea arose.
“We got the idea with my boyfriend when we were in Provence to get lavender and the locals offered us peaches out in the field. We thought it was such a pity that we didn’t have a burner and a pot in which we could cook some marmalade for them on the spot. And then it struck us that it would be a lot of fun to travel around Europe and make marmalade for the locals –cooking from whatever fruits were in season and whatever spices or interesting ingredients are typical for that place or made there. ”
So far Blanka has made marmalade in San Marino, Sicily, Luxembourg, Spain and Morocco demonstrating her art to the public and creating new recipes along the way. People taste, admire and buy her stuff and she keeps a few jars from every stop to take back home to her family coffee house. On the phone from Sardinia I asked her what she’d made so far and where she is heading in the months to come.
“In San Marino I made khaki marmalade, in Sicily I used citrus fruits –spiced orange and lemon marmalades, in Morocco I made marmalade from the tiny bananas they grow there with cactus honey and golden raisins. Now we are in Sardinia where some wonderful strawberries have just ripened –small and very sweet - so that’s an obvious choice and I already have in mind what to combine them with for extra spice. After that we will be going to Corsica, Greece the Scandinavian states which I am particularly looking forward to, also Great Britain, we’ll be cooking in Scotland and Ireland and so on.”
Blanka says that while she has studied her destinations in advance –and considered possible recipes at each stop very often she ends up having to improvise – either because whatever fruit she had in mind is not yet ripe or because she unexpectedly finds something better. I asked how happy she was with the reception received so far.
“The response has been very positive. For instance in Sicily where practically every woman makes her own marmalade and where you’d think it wasn’t a big deal the turnout was great and people were eager to see what I made and taste it. They were full of praise –it really seems they liked it.”
Blanka is due to return from her European Marmalade Expedition in November – and she’s already working on a book of her European tour –part travelogue, part cookbook – sharing her impressions and the marmalade recipes that emerged on tour. The book, which her fans are already looking forward to, is expected to hit bookshelves around the country in time for Christmas.