In Praise of Linda Alley’s Jams and Jellies

And especially that little pot of rose petal jelly.

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Linda Alley’s West Tisbury kitchen is as colorful as the glass jars of jams and jellies that line her bright blue countertop. Heart-shaped plates that echo the heart logo on her New Lane Sundries label decorate the walls. The cabinets are a deep magenta and the wood floor is painted a complementary shade of pale blue. But the little jars — that’s where the real color shines, especially when she’s making a batch of her coveted rose petal jelly.

Born and raised on Martha’s Vineyard, Linda makes her jams and jellies in the same kitchen she grew up in. She knows when the time is right to gather the pink petals of the rosa rugosa, and where to look for the beach plums yet to ripen for her beach plum jelly. 

“I know there’s going to be a lot of beach plums this year, they’re green and I’ve seen them already,” Linda says while she watches the big black pot on her stove. She was working on the rose petal jelly when we visited, and the smell fooled me into thinking the house must be filled with bunches of roses.

She gathers the petals by the bagful along Island beaches and then follows the directions she adapted from a mint jelly recipe in a Gourmet magazine decades ago. The petals steep in a bowl of water, turning it a deep pink, before they get to the stovetop. The ingredients are simple — water, sugar, Certo, lemon juice, and the rose petals — but the resulting bright red color and aromatic flavor is a complex feast for the senses. Imagine spreading rose petals on your morning toast; the jelly tastes like rose petals smell, and the jars have soft petals floating inside the jelly.

Linda said she had gotten up at 5:30 that morning, getting a “late” start to jelly prep that day. “I usually get up at 4:30,” she says. I ask how long she’s been making jelly.

“When did all this craziness start?” she asks back. “About 33 years ago.”

She first made jam with her mother and grandmother, she says, but it was a stroll through the Farmers Market in the late 1980s that led to her own business.

“I looked around at the market in the beginning of August and thought, ‘I can do this, I know how to make jam.’ I’d been making it at home,” she said. “The next Saturday — this was long before there were rules — I went in and I’m sure I paid to have a booth. I had a kitchen table and I took no umbrella. I probably had four or five different kinds of jam.”

Things have changed a bit since then; booths are assigned these days, and the Farmers Market runs two days a week in season and continues until Christmas. Now Linda makes close to 500 jars of jams and jellies a week, with flavors such as mango cardamom and lavender nectarine as well as the popular “West Tisbury traffic jam” made from strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries. In the fall, she whips up more savory jams — jalapeño cranberry and apple rum raisin. All of this, and Linda is still a one-woman show, making small batches of about eight or nine jars of jam or jelly at a time. She puts in about 60 hours a week, and then spends time at the Farmers Market when she’s not cooking. Linda says she sells 8,000 to 9,000 jars a year. She creates her own flavors such as pink grapefruit marmalade (which she deemed “very bold”) and ginger pear, but her own personal favorite is simple — strawberry jam. “It’s just so darn good,” she says. “It tastes so real.”

Linda said she doesn’t have any set formula for the varied flavors: “I just think them up.” She goes through close to 100 pounds of sugar a week in July and August, usually buying it from local grocery stores.

Summer customers come from all over the country, and many of them remember trying New Lane Sundries the year before. Some call ahead and order jam and jelly by the case. Linda said she enjoys the people who stop by her booth. “When I’m on the job, the most important thing is my customer,” she says. “I try to remember who they are and people appreciate that.”

She said she used to try to get to the beach on Sundays in summertime, but she usually ends up coming back home early, worrying over what’s left to do before the next Farmers Market. Winter and early spring days are spent working at Alley’s General Store or just at home, enjoying her yard. (Her dad was Jimmy Alley, former postmaster, selectman, and lifelong fan of West Tisbury.)

“I love [staying] home,” Linda says, looking around at all the family mementos that line shelves in the house, “or I go for walks on Land Bank trails. My new favorite is Short Cove.”

Linda enjoys cooking up more than jam, and said she’s getting pretty good at cheesecake, and as with the jam and jelly, her flavors are creative.

“I made a lemon meringue cheesecake,” she tells me, “and the rhubarb cheesecake is heavenly. The next one I want to try is banana cream cheesecake.”

Jars of rose petal jelly were setting on the countertop when I left, nearly ready for the next Farmers Market. But rose petals were almost past-season, and she was looking forward to their successor, rose hips. “I’ll need a lot of them,” she says.

New Lane Sundries can be purchased at Cronig’s Markets, Rainy Day, and Alley’s General Store. Visit newlanesundries.com to order your favorite flavor.