The reports from 2010 are unequivocal; marmalade sales are dropping dramatically as Britons betray their national heritage and slather peanut butter, Nutella, and jams onto their breakfast toast. The news is sending shock waves through cooks, foodies, and bloggers the country-wide, as they raise their collective hands in horror, proliferating eulogies on marmalade and casting about for some plausible explanation for this mass betrayal. Perhaps, in the do-it-yourself spirit of our times, they suggest, everyone was making marmalade at home?
Of course those in the know have always made marmalade at home. It is one of the products our industrialized food system has failed to replicate successfully, producing lackluster pots of neon orange devoid of any real body or soul. No doubt there are posh pots you can buy for £5 a pop in Whole Foods or Harrods, but it is impossible to find a satisfactory, reasonably priced product. And so I find myself joining the ranks of cooks and writers on a mission to persuade you, dear readers, of the benefits of homemade. Here, then, is my marmalade manifesto:
The character of commercial marmalade is abominable: the colour is an awful, lurid shade of orange; there is no textural variation, with uniform, machine-cut peel floating in bland orange syrup; and most importantly, the taste is one-dimensional and overly sweet. This is the miserable state of affairs.
In contrast, proper homemade marmalade is a treasure—literal pots of gold—beyond price. It has complexity, variation, and nuance. It is dark and gleaming like an ancient stained glass window, and the taste is a beautiful balance of sweet citrus shot through with a bitter and elegant Seville blade. Even when inexpertly made, as my marmalade inevitably is, the result is almost always lovely.
Beyond gastronomic benefits, the process of making marmalade itself is immensely satisfying. Admittedly laborious, it is nonetheless a perfect way to decompress after a stressful week. Boiling, chopping, stirring, and then letting the concoction bubble away on the stove, it soothes the spirit and perfumes your house with oranges, so that in the bleakness of a northern February you become infused with a succulent Mediterranean sun.
And there is also the smugness factor. For myself at least, there is something decidedly satisfying about clambering up to the top of the kitchen cupboards months after making marmalade, rooting around in the depths, and dragging out a dusty, amber pot. Even choosing which one to open next is quietly gratifying, as I store marmalade in a mismatched collection of old mustard, honey, and olive jars. So depending on what takes my fancy, I can pick an elegant cylinder that once contained sun-dried tomatoes and feta in oil, or a short, tubby ex-honey pot. In fact, from boiling the oranges to slathering the golden contents onto a slice of toast, homemade marmalade a study in deliciously smug indulgence.
There are some foods which merit a little snobbery. Not because they are expensive or particularly difficult to make, but because they are the real thing. They stand proudly, sneering down a the masquerading masses, the flashy yet vacuous impostors with their dirty secret flavorings and additives, their synthetic preservatives and packaged pretensions. Marmalade is one such food.
In the period drama Gosford Park there is a scene that sums up my attitude towards marmalade. Maggie Smith is at her vintage best playing the haughty, tightly held Lady Constance Trentham, who, upon being served bought marmalade at breakfast is unimpressed, looking down her nose at it in that belittling way that Maggie Smith executes so well:
“Oh, dear.” She comments, eyeing the pot with prim revulsion. “Bought marmalade. Dear me, I call that very feeble.”
Here is my favourite Seville orange marmalade, adapted from a recipe by my aunt Joanna—queen among marmalade makers. And using this basic method, you can then improvise with abandon: Give it a zesty kick by adding root ginger; ring the changes with a batch of three fruit marmalade including lemon, orange, and grapefruit; or go wild with Mayer lemons. Below however is the timeless classic.
Seville Orange Marmalade
Note: Seville oranges are only available in winter, from about January through early March. In the US it may take some work to hunt them down. But don’t despair, ginger orange or three fruit marmalade is perfectly delicious made with plain old oranges.
3 pounds Seville oranges
2 tablespoons treacle/dark molasses
5 pounds castor/granulated sugar
a large pot
a piece of muslin
1. Scrub the fruit and place in large saucepan. Cover with water and boil until the fruit is nice and soft. Remove and leave to cool.
2. Cut the fruit in half and using a spoon scoop all the insides (pips and flesh) into a muslin cloth placed in a medium size mixing bowl. Tie up the muslin and place in a sieve above the mixing bowl to catch all the juice.
3. Measure out the water left in the saucepan plus the juice in the bowl to make six pints. If you fall short just add water. Put the muslin bag into the water and boil until it has reduced by about half. Turn off the water and strain the muslin bag in sieve over a bowl to catch all the juice, then pour all the juice back into the saucepan.
4. Slice the peel to the size you like, wafer thin strips for fine-cut or hefty chunks for a more rustic thick-cut version. Add the rind to the boiled water.
5. Next (and this can be done the next day if necessary) add the sugar and black treacle to the pot and bring slowly to the boil so that the sugar can dissolve properly. Boil until set. To test for setting, dribble a small spoonful of marmalade onto a saucer and pop into the freezer for a couple of minutes. Remove and then run your finger through the marmalade. If it leaves a clear path, its ready.
6. Let the marmalade sit for a bit before you jar; if your pot too soon all the rind floats to the top. Also, if there is froth on the top, swirl in a small knob of butter and it will clear.
7. Sterilize your jars: This can be done by running them through a cycle in the dishwasher or simply pouring boiling water into them before use. Ladle the marmalade into the hot, clean jars. Screw lids on while the marmalade is still warm as this will help create a seal.
Marmalade is delicious on buttered toast but it has many other uses. Spiked with pepper and cloves it makes a lovely glaze for ham or pork loin, and a couple tablespoons makes a luscious addition to a ginger cake.
The following is a poem by my mum in which she distills the particular pleasure and of making marmalade:
By Judith Adams
In the back of the cupboard
is the sedentary pot
whose alchemical occupation
I call on when the season
comes loaded with oranges
dark against the morning that never
quite comes lit in winter.
I switch to a good interview on the radio,
something inspirational, because the
world is at odds and I have existential dread.
I heave its weight out for the ritual,
cut oranges and lemons,
scrape the fat fingers and knuckles of ginger,
cutting them into hairy chunks,
and cover with water the crescent wheels of fruit.
The pubescent acidity seeps into the curtains,
bedding, and back door flower bed.
After heaving for hours begins to turn over
to amber glass that rises and switches,
peel upon sticky peel of golden
resin coating the wooden spoon.
I have become an expert of the peak moment,
the rising that holds preservation.
Convincing proof of this art
labeled, lined up on the windowsill
so a passing man or stray angel might wish for
one delicious, flaxen, sacramental taste.