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Cooking up Exotic Flavors with Jo Snow Syrups

By Anthony Todd in Food on Feb 9, 2011 4:00PM

We were first introduced to Jo Snow Syrups by Lisa Thompson of Blue Sky Bakery. She pulled a bottle out of a refrigerated case and poured a bit of an anonymous substance into our steamed milk, promising that we would like it. When we tasted it, we knew at once that this was a special product. Our first taste, of Fig Vanilla Black Pepper syrup, converted us to the cause, though we weren't sure what else could be done with flavored syrups. After spending an afternoon with the founder of Jo Snow Syrups, Melissa Yen, our horizons have been broadened. Coffee drinks, exotic cocktails, baked goods and even roasts can be enhanced by the exotic flavors of Jo Snow syrups. Best of all? They are all-natural and reasonably priced. We had to get into Melissa's kitchen and learn how these were made.

Making syrup, especially in quantity, seems to require three things: creativity, sensitive taste buds and a very strong back. Melissa can go through 150 pounds of cane sugar (which comes in 50 pound bags) in a single day of production. The operation is entirely manual - every batch of syrup is cooked, stirred, lifted, poured and bottled by Melissa, with help from her husband Laurent. Most batches start with mixing and measuring, as the sugar and herbs are put into huge containers. This saves a little labor, since Melissa only has to pour one thing into each pot. Some spices are roasted in the stockpots before the sugar and water are added - the smells of roasting cardamom, freshly ground black pepper and other spices fill the kitchen. According to Melissa, she knows the black pepper is done grinding and roasting "When you start to choke," and it's true - the sacrifices made in the pursuit of great products!

Jo Snow Syrup was inspired by Melissa's experiences as a cafe owner. After making hundreds of specialty drinks, many of which required a lot of steeping and processing, she began to wonder if those flavors could be condensed into a single product. Jo Snow syrups were born. Almost every product is a mix of several flavors - Melissa jokes that she isn't happy until she can fit three herbs or spices into each product. After tasting syrups like the aforementioned Fig Vanilla Black Pepper, Tangerine Lavender Honey and Hibiscus Basil Orange Blossom, we certainly cannot disagree.

Once the herbs and spices are roasted, the sugar and water is poured into giant pots to boil. When the syrup is complete, Melissa adds one final note of flavor. When the tiny shot of rosewater hit the hot syrup, it burbled up like a geyser and the entire kitchen filled with the smell of flowers - a little goes a long way. Cardamom Rose Water isn't one of the most popular flavors (most people don't know what cardamom is) but it certainly should be. After the final flavor is added, the syrup is strained, poured and bottled, one bottle at a time. Each batch is taste-tested to make sure it is just right.

Because we love cocktails, we were most excited by the alcoholic potential of these syrups. Try a twist on a Negroni - mix equal parts gin, sweet vermouth, campari and Hibiscus Basil Orange Blossom syrup and shake with ice. Experiment on your own, and look for Jo Snow Syrups to start showing up on bar menus soon.

A 375 Ml bottle of Jo Snow Syrup costs $10, and a little goes a long way. You can find Jo Snow products at Provenance Food and Wine, Southport Grocery and other retailers of local products. She will be at the Logan Square Kitchen pastry market this weekend, selling a special flavor (Chocolate Ginger Rose Petal) as part of a collaboration between Jo Snow and Early to Bed. Or, you can buy syrups online. Hosting a wedding? Own a restaurant or cafe? Consult with Melissa to create a custom flavor for your guests - what an amazing parting gift.