Bitter Sweet

17th January 2009

If it’s January, then Seville Oranges are in the shops – and that means marmalade.

Jill Glenn gets nostalgic…

With a vast range of jams and preserves permanently available on supermarket shelves it can be hard to believe that marmalade was once a seasonal product. If you didn’t make enough in the early months of the year, then there was a real risk of running out in November and December.

I yearn for the sort of larder cupboard that dominated my mother’s kitchen, where the top shelves were stacked, month in month out, with bottled fruits (does anyone bottle fruit any more?), jams and marmalades, all made at home – in the very preserving pan that currently sits gathering dust in my loft. Of course, if had that much storage space then naturally I’d be making my own preserves too. Hmmm.

I do miss the wonderful rich dark aroma that permeated the house on marmalade days, and the series of little saucers each holding a test spoonful… if the substance wrinkled when you pushed it with a finger then it was set (and if you were lucky you then got to eat the warm samples in their varying degrees of liquidity). It’s one of those experiences of my childhood that I promise myself every year that I’ll recreate. No ‘shop-bought’ product tastes as good as the simple home-made stuff – and you can taste its heritage in every mouthful.

There is, sadly, almost certainly no truth in the old story that the word marmalade is derived from the phrase ‘Marie est malade’ (Marie is ill), as a result of an apparent fondness of Mary, Queen of Scots for eating a fruit preserve when she was unwell – although it’s true that marmalade was, in its earliest incarnation, a ‘health food’. Bear with me, here…

It’s generally accepted now that ‘marmalade' derives from the Portuguese word 'marmelada', denoting a paste made from quinces and sugar, rather than the citrus-based preserve that we associate with ‘marmalade’ today. It was the Romans (who else?!) who discovered how to make a jelly-like substance by heating and cooling a combination of fruit acid and sugars.

Fruits were traditionally preserved in honey, but quinces didn’t suit this, so the Romans precooked them in wine before adding the honey. This caused the release of pectin, a natural gelling agent, and the mixture set… it’s the basis of all modern marmalades and jams.

The Romans used this jelly as a medicine for indigestion and poor appetite, and the custom continued. It’s likely, therefore, that when the cry ‘Marie est malade’ rang out, chefs produced marmalade in double quick time. Across the border in England, Queen Mary Tudor used a marmalade-style concoction of quince, orange peel, sugar, almonds, rosewater, musk, ambergris, cloves, ginger, cinnamon and mace as an aid to fertility. It probably tasted gorgeous – but, sadly, it didn’t work. Had it done so, Elizabeth I might never have come to the throne, so you could say that the course of English history turned on a pot of marmalade. The alleged aphrodisiac properties also led to the phrase "marmalade madam" being used in the late 17th and 18th Centuries as a name for a prostitute.

Stories embedding marmalade in history are endless. In 1524, for example, Mary Tudor’s father, Henry VIII received a gift of a 'box of marmalade', likely to have been that quince sweetmeat, flavoured with rosewater and musk, which would have been sliced and served as the final course as one of those legendary feasts. The English version of the time was more spreadable, created by pounding soft fruits, such as apricots or plums, to a smooth pulp.

Marmalade as we know it today is generally thought to have been invented by the Scots, although there are so many legends around its origins that most are likely to be apocryphal, with rival Scottish manufacturers each claiming credit. Rumour has it that a Dundee-born woman Janet Keiller made the first shredded marmalade in the 1790s. Faced with a pile of bitter oranges from Seville (a bad purchasing decision by her grocer husband James), she set about finding a use for them… Several hours later she had ‘invented’ modern marmalade. It’s a sweet story, but dangerously close to the conception myths of many a food staple.

Even if these details are questionable, it's certainly true that the Keiller family (including the unmarried James) built the first marmalade factory in 1797, and Dundee rapidly acquired the name of the 'home of marmalade', making marmalade a Scots product. Apparently. Cooper’s of Oxford might beg to disagree, though; their ‘Vintage Oxford Marmalade’ is much beloved by writers as a symbol of Englishness as potent as Rupert Brooke’s ‘And is there honey still for tea?’, and the Queen herself is reported to be a fan. The company is proud to report that a tin of Frank Cooper’s, taken on Scott’s expedition to Antarctica in 1911, was opened in 1980, and discovered to be in excellent condition.

If you prefer your marmalade dark and thick and strong, then you’re eating in the traditional Oxford style; paler, more jelly like and with shredded peel? That’s Dundee marmalade.
Either way, Sevilles are not the only fruit, although there’s a definite citrus superiority. The crucial distinction between jam and marmalade is even enshrined in European law: the term 'marmalade' can be applied to fruit preserves made from citrus fruits only. Any other fruit results in 'jam'. Quite where such trendy modern relishes as 'onion marmalade' and 'chilli jam' might fit into this hierarchy is open to question. Before the citrus/ non-citrus divide, in fact, there were apple or date marmalades, but even other citrus fruits fail to deliver that intense flavour burst of the Seville, that tangy richness where bitter and sweet come together.

My mother’s battered old cooking diary tells me that in 1978, for example, she made 8lbs of Seville orange marmalade on the 25th Janauary, and 10lbs on the 26th; she paid 20p per pound for the fruit. She also made grapefruit marmalade on the 27th, and again on the 2nd February, and grapefruit and lemon on the 3rd. The grapefruit were 5p each, and the lemons two for 7p. Two years later she made batches of marmalade on the 12th, 17th and 19th January, with a final flourish on the 1st February. The oranges, incidentally, had dropped to 18p per pound.

The Seville season is short, from December to February, so it’s time to scour the greengrocers’ shelves, dust down your largest saucepan and start stirring. Strictly speaking, there isn’t much time. According to Delia, though, you don’t need to make your annual quota in one hit. Apparently Sevilles freeze perfectly well, so you can even make your marmalade in summer if you want. Is nothing sacred?

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