Taiwan's Young Niche Entrepreneurs
Red on Tree: Jam with a Taiwanese Accent
In their quest to make jam, three 20-somethings were determined to use locally grown fruit not really suitable for the task, and ultimately created amazing new flavors.
Red on Tree: Jam with a Taiwanese AccentBy Sherry Lee
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 415 )
As graceful as the ascending moon with its faint yellow glow, it offers the true comfort of a warm touch; its elegant and refined aroma evokes a hint of the fresh breath of a young branch... Miaoli's "soft branch" star fruit doesn't need to be overly sweet because it is naturally beautiful and has a heavenly fragrance.
This is the introduction on the label of one of the jams made by the new Taiwanese fruit jam venture Red On Tree. Well-known gourmet food expert Yeh Yi-lan, who has studied Taiwan's fruit for many years, described the enterprise's jams after tasting them for the first time as "truly amazing."
Yeh was taken by surprise because of the rarity of tropical fruit jams on international markets and believes that Red On Tree and its specialty products could well leave their mark among global jam brands.
It may be hard to believe that the enterprise's three founders were all born in the 1980s and average 27 years of age. It was Wilma Ku, a bright National Taiwan University alum with a bachelor's degree from the Department of Animal Science and Technology and a master's from the Institute of Molecular Medicine, who developed the main concept.
Just before she graduated a year ago, Ku, like many of her 20-something peers, felt trepidation about the future.
"I'm one of those people who matured late. From the beginning I had always been good at my studies, but didn't have any work experience. I either had to go abroad to study, or jump straight into the job market. If I didn't do advanced studies, then I had to change careers, which would be hard," she frankly acknowledges, reflecting the "high education, high frustration" challenge faced by many of her generation.
She re-evaluated her passions and realized she had always had an appreciation for fine foods, especially the handmade jams of Alsatian chef Christine Ferber she often ordered online.
Sensing an idea, the once docile student decided to apply her inquisitive spirit, which had led her to examine animal life and molecular medicine, to the world of jam. She and National Taiwan University Department of Horticulture senior Lin Tsao-chu started collecting information on Taiwan's fruit, and hiring a Taiwanese chef who had studied in France to serve as a consultant, they embarked on a journey to manufacture fruit jam.
The team spent six months producing jams, with few pleasing results.
"We could taste the sincerity, but we couldn't taste any delicious flavors," Ku says, recalling that period of frustration. "We could get the sense of a simple, homemade sweet, but it wasn't polished. It seemed to be lacking soul."
Recipe for Perfection
To better grasp the secret to making homemade jams, she and her team flew to Alsace to visit the shop of the renowned Christine Ferber. Ku observed Ferber, in her dirty apron, leading a team of over 10 cooks and totally concentrating on mixing and watching the concoctions she had cooking in eight brass pots. Her supervision never wavered, as she made sure the heat was turned off and the jams were removed from the pot at exactly the right moment.
"What I realized is that making jam is like making a good wine. You need heart and soul. You can't just rely on technical skill – you have to impart a certain spirit," says Ku, who returned from France even more determined to produce jams using homegrown fruit.
Ku decided to name her brand Red On Tree. Pronounced "Tsai Tsang Ang" in the local Minnan dialect, it describes fruit on the tree at its ripest and in a state of perfection.
Yet while she envisioned the potential of Taiwan and its rich variety of fruit, transforming the fruit into jam proved immensely difficult.
The key elements in jam are acidity, aroma and sweetness. Tropical fruits characteristically lack acidity and aroma, and fail to develop concentrated aromas primarily because they tend to grow too quickly. During the process of making jam, a lot of sugar is normally added to the fruit, but because fruit grown in Taiwan already has a high sugar content, Ku's experimental concoctions often ended up caramelized. That is why the world's best known jams generally come from countries with moderate climates.
Red-flesh Guava Jam
Undeterred, the team persevered in overcoming the challenges posed by tropical fruit by more carefully selecting the fruit itself and refining the production process.
Ku and her colleagues consulted with university professors and research farms and searched online for information, but the answer they most often received from research farms was, "The features you're looking for are directly opposite to current trends in fruit cultivation."
The experts would explain that today's growers value fruit that is very juicy and sweet but with minimal fragrance. The popular golden diamond pineapples, pearl guavas, and Irwin mangos, for instance, are coveted for their sweetness, which is why they are less than ideal for making jams.
In their search of Taiwan's countryside for the ideal raw materials, they rediscovered some lost flavors, such as Jhanghua County's aromatic red-flesh guava.
Red On Tree also takes other steps to fulfill its commitment to provide consumers with healthy jams. The company purchases fruit directly from farmers rather than relying on middlemen and selects organic or "non-pesticide" fruit as much as possible. It also relies on natural ingredients; no chemicals or preservatives are added.
Aside from looking for the most appropriate fruit, the team has also developed an innovative production process to overcome the deficiencies of tropical fruit.
They mix honey, chocolate, oolong tea leaves and other spices with the fruit to produce flavors such as green lemon chocolate and cinnamon orange banana.
The well-known food author Yeh observes that the new generation of jam makers no longer feels constrained by tradition and notes that Red On Tree not only expresses the qualities of Taiwanese-grown fruit, but also uses lemons and other ingredients to temper their sweetness.
A 220-gram jar of the handmade jam costs around NT$320. Ku occasionally runs into consumers who tell her, "At that price, we can buy several jars of Liberty brand jam." But Ku refuses to get discouraged, confidently saying without any tinge of arrogance, "This generation is different from the previous generation. We're a world-class jam, with care for our native land and unique style."
Buttressed by that confidence, Red On Tree began producing its jams last October and in less than half a year has increased its volume from 600 jars per month to 1,000.
Building the Business
Ku and Lin handle every phase of the business, from purchasing, production and canning to packaging and accounting, while the chef focuses on research and development. To help cover expenses, Ku does translation work on the side for a natural sciences journal.
Red On Tree's short-term goal is to sell 2,000 jars a month, a level at which the business can cover its costs and turn a 5 percent profit. To meet the goal, the company plans to increase its capital to NT$3 million. In the longer term, Ku's vision is to build a database on local fruits and even develop partnerships with local farmers.
Red On Tree is the culmination of the efforts of 20-something students raised in the city and in the country's finest schools who journeyed on foot through Taiwan's remote mountainous areas and farms in search of the beauty of Taiwanese fruit.
Running the enterprise has allowed them to face the future with far more optimism.
"It's about doing something you believe in, and believing in what you do," Ku explains in describing her newfound confidence, reflecting the high expectations that members of her generation have for themselves.
Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier
Chinese Version: 在欉紅 煉製最台灣味的果醬