Sweet enterprise
Dillman Farms, Monroe County's own maker of quality jams, offers huge range of delectables

June 2, 2004

Dillman Farms is jammin'. That's what they do out there, after all, cranking out jar after gorgeous jar of jewel-toned jellies, preserves and fruit butters. These run the gamut from the original Indiana apple butter (as well as other fruit butters like apricot, cherry, and blueberry), to jams (best selling seedless black raspberry and strawberry, and more exotic choices like dark sweet cherry and red tomato preserves), to such sparkling clear jellies as fiery jalapeño, cinnamon cider, and red wine.

And lots more. I myself have a thing for F.R.O.G. jam. Although owner Cary Dillman, son of the founder Carl, likes to tell kids it's made from, well, frogs, it isn't really. It is an inspired mix of fig, raspberry, orange and ginger, and it is heavenly — pale, shimmery rose-colored, with a hint of heat in the figgy sweetness.

But jam isn't everything in this life, as even Cary Dillman knows. Looking for a way to expand and draw people out to his shop on the west side of Bloomington, he thought about all that jam and hit on the perfect complement — frozen custard. Just consider the possibilities that emerge when great jam meets wonderful frozen custard. Warm up the toppings, spoon them on ice cream — what an indulgence!

The signature dish of the house is the hot apple butter sundae. Apple butter on ice cream? Indeed. It may not be beautiful to look at (alright, get lots of whipped cream on it and you won't have to) but it is stunningly good. Dillman Farms apple butter is always a wondrous treat — rich and cinnamony and luscious spread on hot biscuits or bread, but it turns out it is equally suited to rich, vanilla bean frozen custard.

It was with this very apple butter that the whole Dillman Farms enterprise started more than 30 years ago, when Carl Dillman set out to help a friend who owned a restaurant in Brown County by making apple butter for him to serve in small pots with his freshly baked bread. Dillman delivered milk for Johnson's Creamery, and soon he was filling the front seat of the milk truck with jars of homemade apple butter and selling it during the course of his day.

Carl, now retired but still cooking, tells me the story standing out back of his home next to his enormous and shiny new automatic smoker, where he is smoking four gorgeous crusty brown pork tenderloins. Seductive smells waft my way that hot morning as I listen to him tell me about the early Dillman Farm days when he and his wife, Sue, produced nineteen cases of apple butter a day, Carl baking it all night and Sue canning it after he left for work the next morning.

One day a couple of guys in suits arrived at the farm. "I thought maybe they were revenue men," says Carl, with the easy laugh of a man who has enjoyed telling this joke once or twice before. They weren't, of course. Down in Bloomington from the now-closed Roselyn Bakery in Indianapolis, they were looking for large quantities of apple butter for their bakery's celebration of apple month. Soon they were back for strawberry jam to celebrate strawberry month, and the Dillmans were involved in the jam business in a big way.

Today it's even bigger. Jam is no longer made in the Dillman home kitchen — the processing plant is stainless steel professional. The sleek and shiny equipment looks state of the art for jam-making — huge vats where the fruit is cooked down, automatic assembly lines where jars are sterilized, filled, processed, and labeled. The products range far and beyond apple butter and strawberry preserves.

Cary Dillman, at the helm of Dillman Farms since the mid-'90s, is in his element thinking up new ideas for those products. Not only are there jams and jellies and fruit butters now, but also salsas (hot peach, blueberry, and black bean, for example) and salad dressings (like honey mustard, cucumber dill, and creamy country), mustards (how about apricot, or honey habanera?), barbeque sauces, dessert toppings, and other scrumptious products like pickled asparagus spears, pickled garlic, persimmon pulp and peach cider. And of course, the recent additions of frozen custard and decadent home-made fudge.

Cary is open to most any suggestion for innovative preserves. Cherry Jalapeño? Cherry Amaretto? In cherry season Michigan farm markets request all sorts of cherry combos, often produced with their own labels on them. Black raspberry mocha? They've tried that too, along with other coffee combinations. The ideas needn't be original — Cary says he figures that even if they have not created the idea, they will always be able to make it better.

A trip out to the Dillman Farm Cookhouse store to scope out these delights is a real treat. If you call ahead you might be able to watch the jam making process, but in any case you can check out all the jams, browse the crafts, gifts, and Indiana-made products in the shop, or sit outside and eat your hot apple butter sundae, or let home-made fudge melt on your tongue.

The Dillman Farm Cookhouse Store is located at 4955 W. Ind. 45 (past Sam's on the left as you head west.) The store is already open, but the Grand Opening celebration is June 11-12 from 10 to 10, with free cones and cups of frozen custard.

Christine would love to hear from you on the subject of food. Contact her by e-mail at cbarbour@heraldt.com. Next week, Food Fare partner will investigate a hot summer topic — ice cream.