The World's Fanciest Jam Is Hand-Seeded with Goose Quills

Alfred Hitchcock hated eggs. In fact, he hated most foods that weren’t steak or ice cream. But he did have a predilection for one incredibly fancy and expensive jam: Maison Dutriez’s red currant jam, a 14th-century French preserve so finicky and expensive (at 18 Euro per 85 grams) that it has the nickname “red currant caviar.” Maison Dutriez’s jam hails from the northern French medieval town of Bar-le-Duc in the border region of Lorraine. The earliest written records of the preserve date from 1344, when local monks fine-tuned their traditional jam manufacturing. They devised a unique production method that involved deseeding freshly harvested berries with the point of a goose quill.

The technique caught on. During the late Middle Ages, pots of Bar-le-Duc caviar became luxury gifts, presented to judges after court trials. As its fame grew, the painstakingly prepared confiture began gracing the tables of royal households. Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots was so fond of the jam that she likened it to "un rayon de soleil dans un pot"—a ray of sunshine in a jar.

Production took a hit during both World Wars, when Lorraine suffered heavy losses on the front line, although Bar-le-Duc was spared bombardment. Decades later, in 1974, a local confectionary—Maison Dutriez—purchased the caviar’s trade secrets from the town’s last remaining producer. Then-owner Jacques Dutriez began shipping 1,000 jars a month to luxury retailers in the United States. Alfred Hitchcock went through one jar a day.

“During his film shoots, he only stayed at hotels that had the jam from Bar-le-Duc,” Anne Dutriec, Jacques’ eldest granddaughter, told me. She took over the Maison Dutriez in 2000 after a childhood spent helping with the arduous harvest and production season, which coincided with her summer vacations. The red currant jam is still made the old fashioned way (yep, with the goose quill and all)—and has been awarded the coveted government seal of “Entreprise du Patrimoine Vivant,” given to firms that uphold France’s living heritage.

I visited the Maison Dutriez headquarters in Bar-le-Duc on a drizzly day in March, several months shy of deseeding season. But Dutriec had gathered a bowl of berries and a silvery goose feather for a live demonstration. Per the Maison Dutriec’s website, épépineuses—the French term for de-seeders—must have “the fingers of a fairy, the eyes of a lynx, and the patience of an angel.” Employees, who processed several pounds of berries a day, used to be sacked if they overlooked so much as a single seed. I peered closely as Dutriec wielded the razor-fine quill to slice open each minuscule berry, expertly excavating a teeny cluster of seeds.

Then Dutriez handed the feather over to me. I plucked a currant between thumb and forefinger, ready to pierce the skin. The quill point slid in smoothly enough, but scooping out the seeds without pulping the berry was no easy feat. In the end, I removed all but one—a decent first attempt.

Showroom displays of the luminescent finished product were stacked in elegantly tapered jars alongside trays of samples. The famous red currant caviar was served slathered onto madeleines, another iconic regional delicacy that was inscripted into both culinary and literary canons by the French novelist Proust. My first bite was slightly tangy and eye-wateringly sweet. Hooked, I helped myself to another.

While I stopped after a few mouthfuls, it was easy to see what has kept the prized preserve in kitchens for so long. “It’s part of the identity of Barisiens—the inhabitants of Bar-le-Duc,” Dutriez said. The strangely powerful confection has survived multiple wars and has outlasted the rise and fall of numerous powers, from medieval courts to Hollywood film sets.