Jori Jayne Emde: Lady Jayne’s Alchemy

Staci Strauss

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Editor’s Note: Jori Jayne Emde is a flavor maven. She has the ability to create, seemingly out of thin air, a taste that will knock your socks off, make you turn around and put them back on again.

Seriously, her Worcestershire is out of this world, her kimchi is outstanding and her vinegars are so delicious.

She is one of the biggest reasons Fish & Game has been such a success from the git-go. Recently, we had a go at trying to understand what all she does and how she does it.

You make products in a barn, in the woods, in upstate New York. Tell us about the idea behind your company, Lady Jayne’s Alchemy. What’s going on in your barn?

Jori Jayne Emde: The idea behind Lady Jayne’s Alchemy is to have an outlet where I can create and concoct based on ingredients I have in my garden and woods. It is a very small scale production and I only create in the giving, bountiful months. At the current time, there is not a tremendous amount going on because the winter is such a scarce time up here.

I have basically been jarring up items that have been fermenting or curing over the winter. I made a bunch of cordials with the fruit pits from the summer bounty that are ready, as well as some cabbage kimchis with the final crop of cabbage before the deep winter.

I always have vinegar brewing in some form or fashion and my next project is to inoculate some local rice with aspergillus oryzae to make a native koji. This will be cool for a number of reasons, such as this past fall I created a paste using squash from my garden and red yeast rice using a non-native koji and fermented it in the same process one would to produce miso. If I can get the local rice to become a native koji, then I will have created a true terroir-driven Hudson Valley miso.

I have some other exciting uses for the native koji, but I can’t ‘spill the grains’ quite yet.

A proper fermentation does make you feel magical when you consume it.

So you are making edible and ‘home and body’ products, can you describe your line to us? Tell us what cha got!

JJE: Well, the truth behind this all is that what I sell are items I made for my own home and family and have for years. Then, friends would come over and ask to buy some. Then, people started reaching out, asking for some or asking me to participate in a fair and sell my items, so I decided to start selling these limited items to the general public.

I am currently out of food items, but will have plenty in the coming months as the Worcestershire is almost out of the barrel where it has been fermenting for a year. I will have more vinegars and hopefully enough fish sauce to offer a few limited bottles. I will also have more churned mustard and jams as well, and hopefully a Hudson Valley Miso!

For my Home + Body line:

Pootie Fresh bathroom sprays–I will have some new scents coming out for Spring. I will also be making new blends for linens, pets and people, too!

I have my Essential Bug Spray that is the only bug spray that works for me and I used to get devoured by those pesky things. It’s all essential oils and can be used on pets and works as a tick repellent, as well. Oh, and it smells pretty damn good, too!

I make a soap with rainwater and clay, so it’s very soft for the skin and perfect for extremely sensitive skin such as mine.

Herbal Hair Rinse is also made with rainwater, homemade vinegar and herbs that I grow and works great to remove impurities and buildup, while also softening. It’s great for color treated hair, as well as curls.

I make a sea salt and mustard blend for bath soaks that is exceptional for tired muscles. I have also been making coloidal oatmeal, so be on the lookout for that addition!

The Tinctures, Bitters + Health line is a limited selection of medicines and concoctions to cure ailments and help get you through the day. This is a category that will always have new additions from time to time.

These are small-batch, handmade products and you do all the work yourself. What’s it like to be so personally involved, so intertwined with what you’re making?

JJE: It is very therapeutic for me. It pushes me to keep reading and creating and growing. It is a lot of work and requires a lot of time and attention, but I believe that’s what makes it stand out among the others.

From where does your knowledge of the plant kingdom come? Why are you so good at this?

JJE: I am often asked this question, and I wish I had a simplified reply. I truly believe it was with me from birth.

As a child in Texas, I recall wanting and trying to have a garden in our backyards, but not knowing what to do and always getting discouraged when attempting to dig a hole in the rock hard, sun dried earth. I had a friend, Jenny Flynn, a few doors down from us when I was in middle school. Her mother had the most mind blowing backyard garden and Jenny and I would spend hours back there, whether it was playing dress up and having a tea party in the rose bushes, or harvesting beans, onions and melons. I loved it back there.

Then, in high school I was sent to a boarding school in North Idaho along the Kootenai River and was near the Kootenai Indian Reservation. The school had a large garden space that in the early days of its inception was the food source for the students. It had been neglected before my arrival, as was the green house.

I started a project with a couple of other students and staff members to revive the garden and greenhouse and would spend time in the library reading about the native plants and drawing. We built up the garden in no time and had fresh-grown food back on the menu within one season. I would take hikes with a volunteer on the weekends who was a woman from the Kootenai Native Tribe and she would show me the different wild plants in the woods. She taught me about drinking wild ginger with vinegar and hot water to ease an aching stomach.

I don’t think I considered what an inspiration that whole experience was until much later in life.

You’re expert at foraging for raw materials. Tell us how that works. How does it feel when you find something unexpected on one of your long walks?

JJE: Zak (Pellacio) and I love walking the woods. He loves it year round, I’m selfish and mostly enjoy it in the months that offer me bounty, rather than just solitude and beauty.

I do not think of myself as an expert at all. I am often very uncertain about my findings and have to refer to an expert to assure me or correct me. For me it starts with walking around and finding stuff that looks or smells interesting. I often have a pack with reference books and a bunch of bags for collecting. I collect what interests me and I start researching to try and find what it is. I also sometimes read about a certain plants and then make it a mission to try and find them.

It’s incredibly fun and rewarding to discover things! It is also a beautiful reminder to take it slow and be respectful because nature produces what it wants. It’s not full of hybridized growth that is created to have abundance and uniformity. You have to think, be aware of what you find and how much is in that area before you start harvesting because you don’t want to deplete the woods.

Both Zak and I spent years walking the woods and making assessments before we started to actually go and harvest. It is the most respectful way. I learned this from the Native American woman I referenced above. I remember picking this beautiful white flower while on a hike one afternoon in Idaho and it looked like an orchid. I showed her and she gasped and softly said “oh no”. I asked her what happened and she informed me that it was a rare, native Western fairyslipper orchid that dies if you pick the flower. I felt such remorse–a big lesson that I bring with me every time I enter the woods.

You are also an ace gardener. What have you learned in your patch that has made your products better or made you more creative?

JJE: I have learned that if it doesn’t want to grow in my garden, then I ain’t growing it.

I have consistently had a difficult time growing onions, so I decided not push growing onions in my garden. So many other incredible things grow with great success, so why spend hours and time and money adjusting my fertile soil to force onions up?

I also think about the native plants and even if they seem a nuisance or aren’t as beautiful as a cultivated starter, I believe if it really wants to be where it pushes up, then let it be. I remove the weeds that are troublesome and are killers to other plants, but many of those aren’t in fact native and are harmful to the native plants, as well as my garden plants. Many are edible as well, so it’s like, why remove them?

I view my garden as a classroom. I am constantly trying to learn from it and adjusting based on what I’ve learned from previous growing seasons.

I think about it in a year-round sense, what can I grow that I can eat now vs. what can I grow that I can put away and eat during the winter? That makes for a lot of planning and rotating, but it’s so fun and rewarding.

I also try and think about protecting my garden from predators using growth from the garden. An example of this is surrounding the garden with plants predators won’t eat, such as potatoes and garlic, then within the garden I plant a few more cucumber plants than I’ll really need so my crop isn’t depleted by any bunnies. It’s their yard that I built on, so I find it best to prepare for the both of us.

I’m a hobby gardener for the most part though, so I am sure my methods would not be great for somebody who relies on their crop for revenue.

Let’s shift our focus slightly. You are a partner in the year-old (and very successful) restaurant, Fish & Game in Hudson, New York. Besides adding your tremendous design intelligence, your condiments and other preserved foods are making a big impact on the flavors coming from the kitchen there. Tell us about what you produce for and how it’s used in the kitchen (and bar) at the restaurant.

JJE: This is a big question! At the restaurant we turn what most restaurants consider waste, into a product. We have a very low food cost because a majority of what we use has 100% yield. An example of this is all the vinegars I make from the scraps of product. I make vinegar from the green carrots tops and any peels from the carrots. I make vinegar from the skins and cores of tomatoes, from the pits and cores of fruits, from ‘corked’ wine or wine that has been open for too long to sell. I can take a beat up crop from a farmer he or she can’t sell it because it doesn’t look pretty enough (such as bug infestation on kale) and turn it into kimchi. There is pretty much a use for everything.

Being so focused on using local ingredients in a restaurant that falls in the zone5a growing region, has its challenges during the winter and spring months.

I spend four full months gathering as much of the summer’s bounty to jar up as much fresh flavor as possible to get us through the winter without having to order any produce from a non-local vendor. This means that I have to put my creativity to the test and think ahead with any predictions.

I jarred up about 900 pounds of tomatoes, made a lot of different pickles, kimchi, saurekrauts, fruit preserves, brined vegetables, salt packed vegetables, pastes, jams, and sauces. The list seems endless and has gotten us through the winter with few ingredients and a lot of flavor! 

That falls in line with our bar, too. Aside from making a majority of the bitters used behind the bar, I make the tonic water as well, and quite a few cordials and liqueurs that are currently being used for the menu.

You use old-school European style fermenting crocks for your potions. What do these add to your magic concoctions?

JJE: I use the fermentation crocks almost solely for kimchi, sauerkraut and miso production. I don’t use them for vinegar or other potions I make. I am a firm believer in these vessels as they consistently make an evenly fermented product and are self sufficient. There is something about the clay and the physics of the design that somehow maintains a consistent temperature and weight. I am just an avid fan, despite their weight and size.

Can you talk about the magic of fermentation? How did you get into it and why do you think you understand it so well?

JJE: A proper fermentation does make you feel magical when you consume it–like Lebowski flying over Los Angeles, but the process itself isn’t magic at all. It’s basic chemistry, actually. It is a substance breaking down from bacteria. I am not sure how I got into it–it’s around us every day. A leaf composting into soil is technically fermentation. I have always been fascinated by these processes. They surround me every day. I then took it to the kitchen and just started playing around with different ideas. There is so much to learn and a lot is through trial and error.

What are you excited about with the upcoming growing season? Do you have ideas for projects/products that, perhaps, you haven’t attempted before? Tell us a little about that.

JJE: Such cool stuff happening. I have great hopes that this season will be the tits, even though the winter doesn’t seem to want to leave. This winter is like that boyfriend who stays over every single night, even though he has his own place, and doesn’t offer to pitch in for rent or groceries.

Anyway, I am plotting some test patches in the Fish & Game Garden for Einkorn wheat, as well as a couple of rare, heirloom flint corn varieties. The Fish & Game farm is on our partner, Patrick’s property and this garden will be the main food supply for the restaurant. If the crops are successful, we will grow in a larger scale in the fields and they will be used for the menu and breads at Fish & Game restaurant.  

The garden at my house, known as Blue Heron Farm, will have more experimental, tender crops. I am working on growing cranberries and a native wild rice.

In the fall I was able to expand my garden and plant about 3,000 garlic bulbs with a majority of them being from my previous harvest.

I read a lot of historical texts and will work to find herbs or vegetables referenced in the texts to see if I can access them and grow them. An example of this is a recipes from the late 1700’s from Russia for Lettuce Preserves. The recipe doesn’t list what lettuce, I just know that it would have to be a cold hearty and thick veined, non-leafy, non-tender lettuce. So I immediately went to romaine based on the description in the recipe. I did a test batch this summer with a local romaine my friend Sue Decker over at Blue Star Farms was growing, and the recipe was a success in flavor, although the romaine was still too leafy. Knowing I want to make this recipe again, I spent time finding a Russian heirloom, very hearty romaine that looks like a savoy cabbage.

We’ll see how it turns out!

Jori, thank you for your thoughtful answers. We learned a lot today.

JJE: Well, thank you. I enjoyed it.

Have you ever tried your hand at making vinegar or sauerkraut? Tell us what you’ve fermented in your kitchen.

Photo credit: Zak Pelaccio