This article first appeared in the February edition of Cibus magazine.
What you will read has nothing to do with the popular cover version in the Moulin Rouge soundtrack and its ‘voulez-vous coucher avec moi (ce soir)?’ chorus. This is about a lady, my first love, who every year, during this time, preserves oranges in the form of marmalade.
‘What a zingy orange smell, Mum must be doing marmalade!’ I thought as I unlocked the door of my parents’ house. Every January, Mum transforms her kitchen into a marmalade production zone. Not that in other months it is dormant, given that Katy (Mum) is always brewing in our kitchen.
Marmalade may be regarded as a humdrum condiment and recently industry figures suggested that sales of marmalade jars fell substantially. But this jar of tawny preserve is a representation of warmth and confidence. Preserving means capturing seasonal abundance and saving it for the scarcer months. So whilst in January it’s raining oranges, ‘waste not and prepare this bitter sweet preserve to last for the year to come’, Mum says.
The marmalade production starts soon after locally grown Seville oranges are delivered to our doorstep by a gentleman who owns a tree of this kind. You can find Mum hustling and bustling with piles of oranges first thing in the morning or at some odd hour late at night. Yet, she loves marmalade making and this time, as I breathed in the intoxicating sweet sharp scent; I sat down and followed the process for the second bunch of oranges.
Following an inherited recipe, Katy scrubs and cleans a kilo of Seville oranges. With knives and chopping board ready and set she cuts the oranges into quarters and removes pips. She stores the pips tied in a piece of muslin and reserves them for later use. Next comes the chopping. Mum prefers doing this the accelerated way, so she puts one lemon and the kilo of oranges in a food blender and whizzes everything up with enough water to cover the fruit. You require 2 litres of water for a kilo of oranges therefore it is suggested that you first measure 2 litres, then top the fruit in the blender with part of the water and keep the rest aside. The blender races on high speed for about 10 seconds and the chopping was done. Mum advised that you might need to do this step in two batches, depending on the size of your blender.
By this time, the kitchen is a clutter of orange strands and drops, utensils, jars and cloths. I am taking notes and drinking coffee. In a deep pan, Mum pours the chopped fruit and the remaining water. She places the muslin bag with pips inside the pan and brings contents to boil until the fruit softens. This process should take approximately an hour. I waited whilst leafing through a preserve book from our food book library. ‘It’s time to add 1.5 kilograms of sugar and stir well until all the sugar dissolves’, Mum articulated whilst stirring. She subsequently increases the heat and boils the mixture rapidly. The result is plenty of orange peel swimming around in juice. Though, this is the point where the fruit turns into jelly. Mum removes the pan from heat and leaves it to cool slightly. Apparently there is a trick of the trade – ‘to test whether marmalade is thick enough spoon a little marmalade onto a small saucer, transfer it to freezer then after two minutes pull your finger over the surface. If it creases then it’s done,’ Katy instructs. Finally, she pours the mixture into sterilised, hot dry jars, covered with greaseproof paper and seals with the lids immediately. The jars are set aside to chill and then stored in our cool, dark larder for at least a month before serving. The marmalade should last for a year, if it’s unopened.
There are numerous assorted recipes to create this marvellous marmalade. Indeed, Mum was already looking at preparing a new recipe for this year and that is bitter orange marmalade with fresh ginger and cinnamon. I couldn’t wait for this recipe to be completed but I will definitely take some jars away with me the next time I visit.
Marmalade may be considered unexciting to many youngsters most probably because it is associated with the older generations or because of the bitter bits and pieces found in the conserve. Many would rather have their toast with chocolate spread. But marmalade is so flexible that you can prepare it according to your taste, make it sweeter or lighter, and add whisky or apples. The options are countless.
The snap of the toaster redirected me towards the kitchen. There was my treat – two fragrant slices of toasted crusty Maltese bread, spread with butter and topped with my mother’s velvety marmalade. With the first bite, the zingy orange flavours explode across your palate as they meet the melting butter. Who said that marmalade tastes best on a cold toast?!
- The word marmalade comes from marmelo, Portugese for quince
- Marmelo derives from the Greek word melomeli, a honey-sweetened quince preserve consumed as a digestive
- By the late Middle Ages the Portuguese were making marmelada, a sugar and quince paste
- In Scotland they shifted from quince to orange marmalade and started serving this as part of breakfast
- James & Janet Keiller of Dundee in Scotland are thought to have been among the first commercial producers of marmalade
- The World’s Original Marmalade Awards is organised annually in Cumbria in the United Kingdom
- A recent research showed that the best way to enjoy marmalade is to eat it on cold toast