The weak winter sunlight falls in watery beams through the window on to the hundreds of jars of different marmalade set out on a white tablecloth. As they shine with the diffused light – orange, amber, tawny and golden – they look, against the dark oak panelling of the old dining room, like jars of bottled winter sunshine. Something about them makes you smile.
This is the third annual World Marmalade Festival. If that sounds rather grand, so is Dalemain, the historic house in the Lake District where it is held. Since medieval times this little stately home of grey-pink stone has presided over the good farmland below the fells to the north of Ullswater. It was opened to the public some 30 years ago, to defray the costs of its upkeep. But if you think that a Marmalade Festival is merely part of a desperate strategy to keep the visitors coming you have not met Jane Hasell-McCosh, of whom more shortly. Nor do you truly understand the full role that marmalade plays in the British psyche.
There have been rumours, recently, that marmalade-making is in trouble: that the Seville oranges on which the classic variety depends have been in short supply, or even (as one Cumbrian newspaper claimed) that alterations to the growing season caused by climate change threaten to have a lasting impact on the quality, availability and price of these key ingredients. Senior figures in the industry deny that such a problem exists, although in some areas local wholesalers report that the price of the fresh fruit has been up by 30 to 40 per cent this year, and even that the oranges have been hard to obtain. But there is no trace of any crisis at the festival; or, indeed, of anything so ephemeral as market trends. Up here in Cumbria you encounter a much more rooted cultural reality.
Over by the window five women in white coats are in earnest conversation over their notes. They look like a group of hospital scientists. But this is more serious. They are the marmalade judges of the Cumberland/Cumbria branch of the Women's Institute. And not just any judges. There may be celebrities to judge the lesser categories – Dark and Chunky, Any Citrus and Marmalades made by Men, Clergy, Politicians and Peers of the Realm. But only the WI can adjudicate on the most elite of categories. These are the women of the pure Seville.
"We judge on appearance, presentation, set, aroma and flavour," explains Margaret Lamb, a marmalade-maker for 50 years. Mrs Lamb, now retired, was once the lecturer who taught jam, marmalade and chutney at the Cumbrian College of Agriculture. "The peel must be cooked. The jelly should be clear and sparkle." Her standards are, shall we say, exacting, though not utterly ruthless.
"This is a honey jar," says one of her fellow judges darkly, elevating the guilty offering. "In a WI competition that would be disqualified." The WI handbook states that the "cover and container should be correct, and suitable for the preservation of the contents" and a honey jar is not deemed sufficiently airtight. "But we're a bit more relaxed with entries from the general public."
The WI does not approve of the dark, thick Oxford variety, which is either overcooked or contains molasses. When the festival launched in 2006 – with 70 pots donated by Mrs Hasell-McCosh's numerous friends to raise money for the local "Hospice At Home" scheme – there was only one general marmalade category. Last year, classes were introduced for Seville, other citrus, and marmalades made by men and children. This year there are more categories still to accommodate the 411 entries which have arrived from all over the country, and from further afield (with entries from Canada and Japan).
The Japanese are newcomers to the art. Not having Sevilles they use a fruit called the yuzu, which like the Seville orange has a short season of just three weeks. Until recently its only use was that its peel added fragrance to winter baths to ward off colds. Now the Japanese are moving into marmalade as they did into motorbikes. But the light, sharp, delicate preserve yuzu produces is a style not likely to impress the WI. "The whole country judges to the same standard – this is the thing," says Mrs Lord.
"If it's a traditional Seville orange marmalade it should taste of the orange."
The food historian Ivan Day, at the festival to give the keynote lecture along with historical recipe demonstrations, sagely shakes his head at that. Tradition is out of step with history here. "Every foodstuff that has any kind of history picks up mythology on the way," he says. "There is evidence that we had quince marmalade called chardequince from around the time of the Battle of Agincourt in 1415." Mary Queen of Scots used a quince version of it to cure sea-sickness – "Marmelade pour Marie malade" – and Mary Tudor used a marmalade made of quinces, orange peel, sugar, almonds, rosewater, musk, ambergris, cinnamon, cloves, ginger and mace to help her get pregnant. (It didn't work.)
Orange marmalade has been made in England since the late Tudor period. Ivan Day has a recipe from around 1615 and many variations from the 1730s. By the Victorian era our current notion of marmalade – in which the intensely sharp Seville oranges are tempered by the sweetness of the sugar to produce a fresh yet intense orange fragrance and flavour unmatched in any preserve anywhere in the world – was well-established. Jars of it travelled the world with colonial administrators throughout the days of the British Empire. Queen Victoria's grand-daughters had it sent to them when they became the Empress of Russia and the Queen of Greece. Captain Scott took it with him in 1911 on his expedition to the Antarctic where a jar was found, in perfect condition, 70 years later.
In the process, marmalade turned from a mere food into an icon of Englishness, embodying all the qualities the English like to cherish in themselves: unique, eccentric, bitter-sweet. And, at its best, it has about it – as the lovingly labelled homemade concoctions sent for judging in the festival showed – the bumbling nobility of the amateur. As the Blessed Delia has put it, "however good the shop-bought versions are, they can never match what can be made at home from just three simple ingredients – Seville oranges, water and sugar".
Scots will bridle at all this. As well as the story about Mary of Scotland they have the legend put about by Keillers of Dundee, implying that the preserve was the invention of one Mrs Keiller, whose husband (or son) bought a load of oranges from a distressed ship in Dundee harbour and took it home to be made into jam. The woman behind the World Marmalade Festival, a force of nature named Janet Hasell-McCosh, the chatelaine of Dalemain, huffs at this. She has in her possession a book of "receits" by one of the family ancestors, Elizabeth Rainbow, dating back to the 17th century which contains lots of recipes for marmalade with oranges. "The Scots can't have this one. I think we can lay claim to being the home of marmalade," she says with fierce enthusiasm. "I'm passionate about this. Marmalade has been my passion ever since I made it with my mother as a child."
She has erected a series of interlocking marquees at the side of the house. This is where the "other" categories are being judged. The Men's section, with about 80 entries, is being sampled by Colin Akrigg, the head chef at the Michelin-starred Sharrow Bay restaurant and the television chef Annette Gibbons. Marmalades with lemon, grapefruit, lime, blood orange and even pineapple are being scrutinised by Pam Corbin of the artisan marmalade-makers Thursday Cottage and Eric Fraunfelter, Master of the Worshipful Company of Fruiterers. And Dark and Chunky is in the hands of the artisan baker Dan Lepard (who has done pioneering work with Alastair Little and Giorgio Locatelli) and Sir Gavyn Arthur, Master of the Worshipful Company of Gardeners.
The WI turns its collective nose up at such fare. The long-cooking of naturally tawny marmalade destroys the freshness of the orange flavour. "Overcooking kills marmalade," says Mrs Lamb. "It makes it taste syrupy or jammy. It's the mistake most people make."
"Either that," chips in her fellow judge, Trish O'Hara, "or they add the sugar too soon, and the peel stays tough." The Dark and Chunky judges disagree. They make an odd couple: Lepard a softly spoken, slight figure in a flat chap, and Sir Gavyn wearing his grand chain of office with vowels as round as his ample figure. But they are united in their enthusiasm for the dark tawny. "If you use muscovado sugar, or a light hand with the treacle or molasses, you can achieve that dark succulence while maintaining the freshness of the fruit," says Lepard.
They are united too in the Britishness of the product. Marmalade crosses the social divide, says Sir Gavyn, who is a former lord mayor of London. "There are jars here made by everybody from a countess, two bishops, various MPs, bed and breakfast landladies and housewives – every aspect of the community. Creating your own food fulfils a basic instinct."
It shows, says Lepard, that Britons' interest in food is not restricted to sitting watching sophisticated culinary extravaganzas on television while eating supermarket ready-meals. "All across Britain there are people making marmalade, sewing, knitting and gardening. Doing something carefully, and well, enriches people – and in the winter, the darkest time of the year when there are no native flowers, the heady smell of cooking oranges fills the house like the scent of a enormous vase of flowers." More than that, there is something about marmalade-making that brings out our humanity and generosity. "People make a big batch and they give jars away to their friends. I have never come across such a thing as a marmalade miser."
You can, however, have too much of a good thing. Over at the Man-Made section the Michelin-starred chef is wilting. Colin Akrigg is now on his 48th tasting and his palate – despite occasional spoonfuls of natural yoghurt or sips of coffee – is becoming jaded. He battles dutifully on to the end and the final tasting where the judges in each category taste the winners in the other classes.
"I haven't tasted a bad one really all day," says Sir Gayvn manfully. He and Lepard have settled on a treacly but subtle Dark Chunky from the Yukon. The Citrus judges are wavering between a classic Seville and a blood orange confection. Colin Akrigg and Annette Gibbons have gone back to one of the less sweet Seville Orange Marmalades they tasted earlier in the day. But when the final Best in Show tasting comes is it a WI classic which wins the day. The winner is telephoned and she arranges to travel up from Somerset the next day to collect the specially commissioned silver marmalade spoon to be awarded to the top prize.
The next day, 600 Brownies and cubs, Rainbows and Beavers, would descend upon Dalemain in honour of Paddington Bear's 50th birthday. The day after, some 2,000 marmalade enthusiasts would turn up to inspect the festival entries and sample a range of fare supplied by some of the county's top artisan food producers, all offering food with a citrus theme and selling the official Festival Marmalade of Seville oranges and Cumbrian quince.
"Wit," said Noël Coward, "ought to be a glorious treat, like caviar – never spread it about like marmalade." When it comes to marmalade itself, no such reservation need apply. And there are, despite those rumours of a shortage, still Seville oranges in the shops.