WHY ARE the British the only people in the world to recognise the gastronomic significance of the Seville orange? Almost every single one of the lumpy, thick-skinned, raspingly bitter, blood-curdlingly sour fruit of the genus citrus aurantium from southern Spain is grown for the UK market.
A few go to liqueur distillers who make an extract to flavour orange curacao, Grand Marnier and Cointreau, but most are packed into refrigerated vans and dispatched to Britain's marmalade-makers. Thence they emerge weeks later, in jars labelled with a glorious roll call of historic names, Robertson's and Chivers, Frank Cooper and Keiller's, Baxters and Crosse & Blackwell, Elsenham and Wilkins of Tiptree.
This week the first of the new season's crop of marmalades will surface in the supermarkets and high street greengrocers. Mindful of our mighty marmalade-making tradition, a few of us will also be making our own. The pursuit is possibly a more rewarding one than jam-making, which tends to be expensive if you are not using your own garden fruit. If commercial marmalade is not really your cup of tea, so to speak, you can customise it to your own taste.
Marmalade is a uniquely British gift to gastronomy. In France they have what they call marmelade but it is a culinary nothing - any kind of jam made of fruit pulp, lower in status than a conserve and certainly never made with bitter oranges. In Germany, Scandinavia and Greece, marmalade is ordinary jam, as it is in Italy - although the Italians do run to a marmellata di arance amare (bitter orange jam).
British marmalade is something else: a jelly or jam of bitter oranges, ranging from pale through to dark, with chewy slices of rind, thin, medium or coarse-cut. Spread on buttery, crisp toast with its explosive cargo of sweet, sour and intensely bitter flavours, marmalade is a bedrock of our food culture.
This version parted company with its European cousins many centuries ago. Marmalade originated in Roman times as a sweet preserve made of quinces, which the Romans knew as golden apples, soaked in honey; it was called melomeli (from the Greek for apples, melo, and honey, meli). The Portuguese adopted this word for the quince - marmelo - and they became experts in boiling the fruit with sugar to make a thick paste which they exported throughout Europe.
It was very popular in medieval England partly because it was thought to have medicinal qualities. There is no truth in the story that Mary Queen of Scots coined the name in 1561 after being given quince marmalade to treat seasickness; it is thought, however, that being of a punning disposition she did say 'Marmelade pour Marie malade'.
Nor is it true that the Scots invented marmalade, though they certainly made it into a commercial proposition. The food historian C Anne Wilson says in The Book of Marmalade that the first printed recipe for a bitter orange marmalade was that of an Englishwoman, Mary Kettilby, which appeared in 1714. But the pulp did not have the characteristic chunks.
It was Mrs Keiller of Dundee who added the chunks, or 'chips' as they were then called, in the 1790s. And Janet Keiller, wife of a Dundee grocer, stepped on to the marmalade stage when her husband bought cheaply a consignment of oranges from a boat driven into the harbour by a storm. Using sugar from her husband's store, Mrs Keiller started to make the marmalade that was to become famous the world over. Alas, it is made no more in Dundee, Keiller's having now been submerged into the Manchester division of Rank Hovis McDougall. Some of us, Mrs Keiller, think marmalade is not what it was. A lot of the commercial stuff seems to be getting sweeter, blander, less bitter. Food manufacturers may argue that this is in response to their consumer tasting panels. But shouldn't marmalade be made for people who like it, not for tasting panels? This is one reason why you might like to make your own.
It's very simple when you know how, thanks to Mrs Keiller's pioneering work. The easiest way is to buy a 1 1/2 lb can of Mamade cooked bitter orange pulp, boil it according to the instructions with 3/4 pint of water and 4lb of granulated sugar for 15 minutes and, after testing for setting on a saucer, pour the result into jars.
At least, if you can't buy good, ripe fruit, that is what you can do. And this is exactly the method some marmalade manufacturers adopt, buying cooked canned orange pulp straight from factories around Seville, thereby saving themselves the trouble of dealing with fresh fruit.
But we're not going to do that; we're going to make our own. The rules of marmalade-making given opposite have been prepared with advice from Shaun Hill, chef of Gidleigh Park in Chagford, Devon, who makes an addictively rich, tawny marmalade, and Wilkins of Tiptree in Essex, whose technique hasn't varied since Victorian times.
THE GOLDEN RULES OF MARMALADE-MAKING
FRUIT: choose the ripest for maximum flavour. Plan to use it at once, because Seville oranges have not been treated with fungicides in the same way as dessert oranges (you'll be glad to hear) so they quickly develop fungal diseases (you won't be glad to hear). It is a nasty shock to find your prized marmalades developing grey, green and blue moulds. So carefully wash and scrub your fruit.
SUGAR: the juice is exceptionally sour and bitter, so you need a lot of sugar. In the best marmalades, sugar content will be about 60 per cent of the final weight (allowing for water evaporation during boiling). Use granulated. Even the big producers use it rather than the more expensive preserving sugars, though the latter does give a clearer finish.
PEEL: the essence of marmalade flavour is the peel. It also dictates the style, whether you cut it into chunky bits, or medium-cut slivers, or fine shreds. To prevent it ending up tough, you will need to boil the fruit in water for a good 1-1 1/2 hours till the skins are soft. Once sugar is added, further boiling will not continue to soften the skins, but candy them.
PITH: the most important part, technically, since it contains the pectin to make it set. Seville oranges (like lemons) have a high level of pectin and it is nearly all in the pith, with a minuscule amount around the pips. Test for setting by pushing a blob of marmalade around on a saucer, until the skin wrinkles.
FLAVOUR: the most sophisticated flavour is tawny, and getting it right requires attention and skill. This is achieved by cooking the marmalade until the sugar begins to caramelise. Cook it too long and it will burn and become bitter. Some commercial marmalades achieve the right colour, but not deep flavour, by adding caramel. This now has to be declared on the label. Wilkins suggests you remove the marmalade before it changes colour and keep it in a cold place overnight; when you boil it up again, you will quickly get the tawny finish.
BOTTLING: don't take risks. Sterilise jars with Miltons (used for babies' bottles).
VARIATIONS: the recipe given below, boiling the fruit whole, should provide superb marmalade, preserving maximum flavour and texture. For the record, though, the very simplest and most common method is as follows.
Scrub the oranges: pour boiling water over them to soften the skins. With a sharp knife, remove peel as finely as possible, excluding the pith. Cut into shreds of preferred size, thick, medium or thin. Simmer the peel in 3 pints of water for 1 1/2 hours until soft. Chop the rest of the oranges into chunks and cook separately in 3 pints of water, also for 1 1/2 hours, then strain through a colander, discarding pips and any coarse tissue. Add the peel to the pulp and cook with the sugar for 15 minutes or until setting point is reached.
Quantities: 3lb oranges; 6lb sugar; 6 pints water; juice of 2 lemons.
3lb Seville oranges
6lb granulated sugar
6 pints water
In a large, wide pan boil the whole fruit with the water for 1 hour or until very soft. Strain the liquor into a clean pot.
When cool enough to handle, halve the fruit. With a dessertspoon, scoop out the pith, pips and pulp. Separate pith and pips and tie in a piece of muslin. Squeeze maximum juice out of the pulp and then discard (if you want a clear marmalade) or retain if you want a bulkier product.
Slice the peel into strips - very fine, medium or chunky to taste. Warm the sugar (in a container in the oven) and stir into the liquor to dissolve. Boil rapidly for at least 15 minutes (there is no precise time), removing scum with a spoon as it floats to the top, and test with blobs on a saucer for setting point. Keep an eye on the colour and take the marmalade off as soon as it starts to turn reddish-brown. Leave to settle for five minutes, then ladle into sterilised jars, distributing peel evenly.
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