A bittersweet blob of Seville

Get bottling says Michael Bateman, as now is the only time of year for marmalade-making and it's easier than you might think

The lovely streets of old Seville are lined with shiny-leafed orange trees. In season their scented fruits glow like lanterns. But no one would think to pick one and eat it. These are the unique Spanish Seville oranges, thick and bitter of skin, with juice that is puckeringly sour. The Spanish have no use for them as a fruit, though some are sent to distillers who macerate the skins in alcohol for orange-flavoured liqueurs, Grand Marnier, Cointreau and curacao.

The rest of the Seville crop is destined for the UK, we being the only people in the world who prize the ultimate product - marmalade. We may also be the only people who can make it properly. I did once visit a food company north of Seville (mainly producing stuffed olives) which had branched out into making marmalade and it was nothing like our own with a sour, metallic taste.

It seemed to emphasise the fact that marmalade as known in the UK is in no way part of some long Iberian tradition; marmel, from which the word is derived, is Portuguese for quinces, but this is used to make something else, a tart, sticky, sweet jam (in Spanish, membrillo). The French use the word marmelade but not to describe an orange conserve; it simply refers to any fruit jam. Italians do honour the concept and in some parts you can obtain a bitter orange jam; marmellata di arance amare.

Britain's love affair with the thick-skinned bitter orange goes back at least to Tudor times when chefs prized it for its juice, using it as a souring agent in sauces, making a sweetmeat-like candied peel with the skins. They boiled the peel to rid it of bitterness, then cooked it till tender, before preserving it in sugar syrup. It was known as succade or wet sucket. Drained and dried, it was then sold as sucket candy.

They also made dense preparations using some of the pulp. One of the most inventive was described by Sir Hugh Plat in his cookbook, Delights of Ladies (1605). You boil 24 oranges till tender, then preserve them in sugar syrup. Remove eight of the oranges, pound them in a mortar with sugar. Then stuff the remaining 16 with the mixture. Boil up again in sugar syrup. Drain, dry and press into small, flat wooden boxes.

It was only a short step to producing a "jam" using the whole fruit. Anecdote has it that the Keillers of Scotland invented modern marmalade. But the first recorded recipe for the preserve we know today pre-dates it by at least 100 years, according to C Anne Wilson, author of The Book of Marmalade (Constable 1985). She unearthed a handwritten recipe in a collection of Rebecca Price, dated 1681, giving her mother's recipe.

Marmalade received its imprimatur in 1714, the first recorded appearance in print being in Mary Kettilby's A Collection of 300 Receipts. Scotland played its part, notably in moving it from the dessert spread to the breakfast table. Dundee grocer James Keiller had bought a consignment of oranges cheaply from a Spanish vessel driven into Dundee harbour by a storm. He set his wife Janet to work with her assistants chopping and boiling and bottling.

Who knows? Perhaps the project was so daunting, Janet became impatient of cutting the strips of orange finely. Whatever, coarse-cut, chunky marmalade was born. Keiller's grew to become the first name in marmalade.

One hundred years later the preserve made its commercial impact south of the border with the founding of Frank Cooper's Oxford Marmalade, enjoying success by managing to associate itself with the life of the university.

Bittersweet marmalade isn't seen as a contribution to world gastronomy (they must be mad; what better kick-start to the day is there than a blob on hot buttered toast?). We export it to most English-speaking countries (Canada enjoys similar tastes) but America has been struggling with marmalade for the best part of a century and still doesn't understand the importance of the bitter element. They produce only the blandest of products, unworthy of the name, usually diluted fruit jellies of lime, lemon and grapefruit.

Although you can buy marmalade at any time, the end of January is the only time you can make your own (unless you use a can of orange pulp).

If you want the best results it's worth going for the first of the crop as it arrives from Spain. Make sure you buy really fresh fruit and that you wash it very carefully. It's not difficult to make marmalade. Jam made from other fruits can disappoint when it won't set but Seville oranges contain so much pectin that it's not a problem at all.

Peel is the essence of a good marmalade. Make sure it's boiled till really tender before the second stage of cooking, when you add the sugar. Seville oranges are very sour, so you'll need a higher proportion of sugar than with most jams. Pectin comes from pith mostly, and a tiny amount from around the pips. Test for setting as you do jam, putting some marmalade on a chilled saucer, pushing it with your thumb. If it wrinkles, it is ready for bottling.

Some regard tawny marmalade, which is mahogany in colour and just starting to caramelise, as the most desirable. It is tricky to judge as it can easily spoil and burn. A professional tip is to take the marmalade off the heat before it colours. Leave in a cold place over-night, and boil up the next day when you will quickly achieve a tawny finish.

The following recipes offer a choice of three traditional marmalades. They are from Sybil Kapoor's enlightening Modern British Food (Penguin pounds 13).

SEVILLE ORANGE MARMALADE

This sweet, almost jelly-like marmalade is based on an 1874 recipe from Frank Cooper. Citric acid is available from most chemists and helps to ensure a good set, as the acidity in Seville oranges varies each year.

Makes 2.7-3.1kg/6-7lb

1.5kg/3lb 8oz Seville oranges

1 teaspoon citric acid

3.4 litres/6 pints water

2.7kg/6lb granulated sugar

Scrub clean the oranges and thinly peel, leaving the pith attached to the fruit.

Place 1.7 litres (3 pints) of water in a saucepan. Slice the peel into fine shreds, adding it to the water as you go along to prevent it drying out. Stir in the citric acid and bring to the boil. Lower the heat and simmer for one and a half hours or until the peel is tender.

Cut the oranges into small pieces and place them (along with the pips, pith and pulp) into another pan. Add 1.7 litres (3 pints) water, cover tightly and simmer for one and a half hours to extract the pectin.

Place a large sieve over a jam pan and strain the fruit pulp in batches to remove the pips and coarse tissue. The pith should look translucent by this stage. Clip the thermometer on to the side of the pan and mix in the softened peel with its juices. Bring to the boil and add the sugar, stirring over a low heat until it has dissolved.

Return the mixture to the boil and remove from the heat when it reaches 106C/220F, which should take around 15 to 20 minutes. As the setting point is reached, the temperature should be reduced to prevent air bubbles setting in the finished marmalade. Stir immediately, then leave to cool and settle for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally to distribute the peel evenly. Pour into warm dry sterilised jam jars and cover with paper discs. Seal once cool.

DUNDEE MARMALADE

Chunky, bitter-sweet and easy to make, as the fruit is cooked whole and softened before being sliced.

Makes 2.3kg/5lb

680g/1lb 8oz Seville oranges

2 lemons

2 small oranges

1.7 litres/3 pints water

1.4kg/3lb granulated sugar

1 heaped teaspoon black treacle

Wash the fruit and place in a pan with the water. Cover tightly, bring to the boil and simmer gently for one and a half hours, until the fruit is easily pierced with a knife. Transfer the fruit to a bowl, leaving the cooking liquid in its pan. Once the fruit is cool enough to handle, slice it in half and scrape the pulp, pips and most of the pith into a bowl. Return the these to the pan, making sure that the pulp is thoroughly mashed up. Bring back to the boil and reduce by half before straining into a jam pan.

Meanwhile, slice the fruit skins into thin strips (or chunks) and add to the jam pan. Clip on the thermometer and return to the boil before mixing in the sugar and treacle. Stir in the sugar until it has completely dissolved, then bring the marmalade to the boil and allow it to reach setting point - 106C/220F - which should take about 10 minutes once the sugar has melted. Skim if necessary and then leave it to cool and settle for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally to distribute the peel evenly.

Pour into sterilised jam jars and cover with paper discs. Seal once cool.

LIME OR LEMON MARMALADE

Rose's introduced lime marmalade in the Thirties, and both lemons and limes have become a popular fruit for marmalade-makers. They make especially good additions to some puddings.

Makes 1.4kg/3lb

680g/1lb 8oz limes or lemons

1.7 litres/3 pints water

1.4kg/3lb preserving sugar

Wash the fruit, then use a potato peeler to remove the zest, leaving pith behind. Finely slice the zest and set aside in a couple of tablespoons of water to keep it soft. Cut fruit in half and squeeze the juice. Pour into a preserving pan with the zest. Using a small sharp knife cut out the remaining pulpy centre and finely chop, saving any pips. Add the pulp to the pan with the juice, then roughly chop the pith and tie it into a large square of muslin with any saved lemon pips.

Place the bag along with all the water into the pan and bring to the boil over a low heat, before simmering for two hours or until the peel is soft and the mixture has reduced by half.

At this stage remove the muslin bag and clip the thermometer on to the side of the pan. Stir in the sugar, and once it has dissolved bring the mixture up to full boil. Remove from the heat when it reaches 106C/220F, which should take 15 to 20 minutes.

Stir immediately and then leave it to cool and settle for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally to distribute the peel evenly. Pour into warm dry sterilised jam jars and cover with paper discs. Seal once cool.

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