Food for Thought

Marvellous marmalade

Lydia Brownlow

For me, Seville oranges have a great affinity with winter months: their bright colour, fragrance and flavour bring much-needed zing to jaded eyes and palates. In a season when many foods seem devoid of colour and flavour they bring a spring back to the step and rekindle my zest for life. Not only do they take me back to a long-ago childhood holiday in Portugal, when we visited an orange orchard, they also mean it’s marmalade season!

Get out your knives and grab your chopping board because there is work to be done and we have no time to lose before the season’s over. When I was young it was all hands on deck for marmalade-making and we children were to be found in the steaming kitchen, bent over the table, lethal knives in hand, hard at it shredding peel. My mother (would be) stirring bubbling vats of golden gloop that were then lovingly poured into clean-ish, old Gold Blend jars and dated; not that they were going to be around for long, they would all be devoured in a couple of months.  

Originally found in the foothills of the Himalayas, citrus fruits are now prized crops around the globe. A cross between a pomelo and a mandarin, Seville oranges, from the tree Citrus x aurantium, are a sour or bitter variety introduced to southern Spain by Muslim Moors. Though the Spanish city is lined with these trees, Seville oranges are predominately exported from Spain to England, to make marmalade.

We have been making and enjoying marmalade in this country for centuries. In 1524 Henry VIII received “a box of marmalade” from Mr Hull of Exeter. Given the packaging, this probably wasn’t the orange spread we know today but marmelada, a solid quince paste from Portugal. 

The English recipe book of Eliza Cholmondeley, dated 1677, has one of the earliest marmalade recipes (“Marmelet of Oranges”) which produced a firm, thick, dark paste. The Scots are credited not only with developing marmalade as a spread, using more water to produce a less solid preserve, but also for moving marmalade to the breakfast table. In his book, “Life of Johnson Vol II” (1791), James Boswell remarks that he and Samuel Johnson were offered it at breakfast in Scotland in 1773 and American writer Louisa May Alcott is described as enjoying “a choice pot of marmalade and a slice of cold ham,” when she visited Britain in the 1800s, “essentials of English table comfort”.

I agree with Felicity Cloake when she writes in the Guardian that “the appeal of marmalade resides… in its pithy directness of taste. Neither fruity – like those fussy French conserves – nor fatty – such as lubricious American peanut butter – marmalade is made of sterner stuff.”

Marmalade has character and bite. A spoonful of marmalade on a piece of buttered toast is the perfect way to waken the senses. It holds its head up alongside proper “British” food such as brussel sprouts and Marmite, the stuff that nourishes heroes and secret agents. Sir Edmund Hillary took a jar of marmalade up Everest, while Captain Scott packed some for the Antarctic in 1910 (many years later a solitary jar was found buried in the ice). In Ian Fleming’s From Russia With Love, James Bond breakfasts on – what else? – marmalade on toast.

Marmalade aside, Seville oranges inspired the creation of famous liqueurs such as Cointreau and Grand Marnier, while the juice and rind are used for both sweet and savoury dishes. The juice can be mixed into syrups, cocktails, vinaigrettes, aioli, sauces, marinades or as a finishing touch on fish and white meats. The zest can be used to flavour sugars and baked goods such as muffins, cakes and bread.

If that isn’t enough to inspire, maybe you need to visit the Marmalade Festival in Penrith this spring. Held on Saturday 14 May at Dalemain Mansion & Historic Gardens, there’ll be marmalade for sale as well as informative talks and the crowning of category winners and Best in Show.

And as any child knows, Michael Bond’s storybook bear, Paddington, is famous for his love of marmalade. “He always carries a jar of it in his suitcase and he usually has a marmalade sandwich tucked under his hat ‘in case of emergencies’.” 

I think he just might approve of one of these cocktails from the restaurant Sparrow, in London’s Lewisham, to wash them down with!  

Marmalade Mimosa

Serves 1

1 orange, juiced
1 grapefruit, juiced
100g caster sugar
2 tbsp marmalade
15-30ml Campari, to taste
Dry sparkling wine, to top

Put the citrus juices, sugar and marmalade in a small saucepan, bring up to a simmer and cook until reduced by a third. Strain and leave to cool (this will make about 100ml, or enough for two drinks).

To build the drink, put 50ml of the syrup mixture in a champagne flute with a swig of Campari – how much will depend on the level of bitterness you like – stir well, then top with a good, dry, sparkling wine.

Lydia Brownlow was a cookery editor at Good Housekeeping Magazine and a contributor to The Daily Beast. Latterly she has been inspiring children to cook.

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