Thinking about marmalade

Thinking about marmalade and wondering whether we should make some come the Seville orange season next January or February – depending on when they come in the shops, I began to think about why my parents’ recipe  produced the best marmalade. Is it just a matter of taste or is there some Marmalade Standard by which it can be measured?

I looked for a definition of marmalade and this is what I’ve come across:

  • a soft substance with a sweet but slightly bitter taste, made by cooking fruit such as oranges with sugar to preserve it. It is eaten on bread, usually for breakfast….

That actually didn’t get me off to a good start – I take issue with ‘soft substance‘ – a pile of feathers could be a soft substance, and I don’t like ‘cooking fruit such as oranges with sugar to preserve it‘ – the point of marmalade isn’t to preserve bitter oranges, but to make marmalade. I have it on good authority from  Spanish friends that Seville  oranges are good for nothing and are left lying in the streets of the city as they are just a decorative item on the orange tree. I also have a big issue with it being eaten on bread – yes some people do or might, but marmalade  is generally and traditionally eaten on toast.

  • a jellylike preserve in which small pieces of fruit and fruit rind, as of oranges or lemons, are suspended.

This is more correct, but there is no mention of the bitterness which is characteristic of a true marmalade.

  • a preserve made from citrus fruit, especially bitter oranges.

I think this is a brief but accurate definition, as is this:

  • Marmalade is a food made from oranges, lemons, or grapefruit that is similar to jam. It is eaten on bread or toast at breakfast.

The mention of breakfast is important, so again, brief but accurate; however Wikipedia gives what  might be considered the best definition and explanation:

  • Marmalade generally refers to a fruit preserve made from the juice and peel of citrus fruits boiled with sugar and water. It can be produced from  kumquats,  lemons,  limes,  grapefruits, mandarins, sweet oranges, bergamots, and other citrus fruits, or any  combination of them.
    For many decades now, the preferred citrus fruit for marmalade production in Britain has been the Spanish Seville orange, Citrus aurantium var. aurantium, prized for its high pectin content, which “gives a good set” – that is, it readily attains the thick consistency expected of marmalade. The peel imparts a lively bitter taste to the marmalade.
    The term “marmalade” is not precise, universal, nor definitive, but unless otherwise stated, marmalade is generally distinguished from jam by its fruit peel. However, it also may be distinguished from jam by the choice of fruit. Historically, the term was more often used in senses other than just citrus conserves

So having compared definitions… how about marmalade, and why do I think my parents’ recipe is the best? I should say to begin with, that although people do make marmalade with other fruit, I really only consider Seville orange marmalade as the true thing.  Without the bitterness, other fruit preserves are just that – preserves or jams.

  • smell/aroma – as soon as you open the jar the smell should bring joy to your nostrils, promising a delight to come… orange, toffee, only a hint of sweetness, acidity
  • appearance – the gel surrounding the shreds of peel should be transparent and clear, no cloudiness, no little blobs of fruit, and it should be a dark not bright orange, almost the colour of treacle toffee; it should glisten and shine. The shreds do not need to be a uniform shape or size but they should not be too thick, or in cubes, nor should they be so wafer thin that they are barely there and they should be distributed equally throughout the jar, neither lurking at the bottom, nor trying to escape out of the top
  • texture – the gel should be soft but hold its shape to an extent, it shouldn’t be liquid, it shouldn’t be stiff, it shouldn’t be a paste; the slivers of peel should be chunky but tender, although they should still retain an element of ‘bite’ – they should still be firm but not chewy
  • taste – there must be orange – it is a marmalade after all. There must be a pleasing bitterness, tempered by a sweetness but not too sweet. There should be a depth of flavour – the taste should have length as well as immediate intensity; there should also be a roundness – thin flavoured marmalade is just wrong. The flavour should be strong and distinct… and yes, as Wikipedia describes it ‘lively’
  • spreadability – yes, of course it should spread!

Does that sound very pompous? I hope not!

I have dear friends who often give me a jar of their marmalade, and I’m very grateful and enjoy having it on toast… but it’s just not the same as that made by the recipe. Some friends add whisky, or ginger, which I quite like, but then it becomes something different.

So what is the secret of the recipe… partly the way it is made, but also the addition of black treacle…. so, take your usual recipe, Seville oranges, a couple of lemons, sugar and also black treacle:

… and here is the method:

The method

  • it is such a chore cutting, slicing, squeezing, preparing the oranges… so put all the fruit in a pan, cover with enough water and boil until soft.
  • cut the cooked fruit in half when cool and scoop the soft flesh out of the shells of the skin. Easy.
  • then slice the peel as finely or as chunkily as you prefer
  • put all the flesh into a muslin and squeeze all the  pectin rich juices from it.
  • continue as with your recipe, but add black treacle
  • bottle when ready, admire your work, sample and store.
  • favoured friends may be lucky to receive a sample!
  • this will keep for several years… I am currently enjoying some 2012 vintage

PS – the different types of preserves…

  • jams – small or chopped or mashed fruit and sugar
  • jellies – fruit and sugar cooked and strained so there are no bits
  • preserves – whole fruit or large pieces and sugar
  • conserves – high fruit content, often with added dried fruit, nuts, etc, similar consistency to jam
  • marmalades – mixed citrus fruit and often with chopped or sliced peel, and sugar
  • fruit butters – puréed cooked fruit and less sugar, soft and spreadable – they don’t keep well so have to be eaten quickly
  • curds/cheeses –  fruit, sugar, butter and eggs, and as with butters, and have to be eaten quickly

Empty vessels…

You’ve heard the saying, empty vessels make most noise? Well here’s a little story about the proverb. it is marmalade making time again, and we have been collecting empty jars for the new batch of what we call Barmalade, since Bari makes it! I have a box of these jars, all washed and ready, stored in the area leading to the back door and every time Bari walked st he seemed to catch his foot on the box, much clattering and naughty words from Bari.

We bought the oranges, and two lemons, we bought the sugar, we bought the labels and checked we had enough black treacle (molasses, our secret ingredient) and boiled the oranges whole before taking out the pulp and then cutting the peel.

The marmalade was boiling away nicely and Bari began to collect his jars but was worried he wouldn’t have enough. I remembered that there was a box of jars in the cupboard under the stairs. It was beneath boxes of other things, but eventually we excavated them and pulled the box of jars out. I expected there to be a rattling as they knocked against each other, empty vessels etc.

Bari opened the box and took out a jar…

MARMALADE 2We had a dozen full jars of marmalade dating from January 2012!


Favourite shop…

I guess I like food, I like food a lot. So because I like food I like preparing it as well as eating it, and because I like preparing it, I like buying it. There is nothing better than a market… but I also like shops which sell food, little ones, and also big ones.

Waitrose is a supermarket chain which is part of the John Lewis group and it is owned by its employees. It’s described as ‘upmarket’ which implies that it is rather snooty, posh and expensive. I have to say that I haven’t found it – i.e. its staff, snooty or posh and although y there are expensive items for sale the quality can make buying them economical; there is also a range of excellent ‘home-brand’ items available. The stores are always spotlessly clean and have a nice smell when you go in… it isn’t just a foody smell, they don’t pump out aromas of baking or coffee, it’s the sort of smell of going into a friend’s house where she or he might have been cooking something delicious for dinner last night, just a faint lingering, enticing scent of something, overlaid with a ‘clean’ fresh flowers smell… You probably think I’m weird now, smelling supermarkets? Definitely weird!

The staff are always friendly and polite but not in a “I want to be your best pal” or “let me sell you something you don’t want” sort of way; they are knowledgeable about the store and what is told, and if they are on a specialist counter, cheese, or fish for example, they know their products.. There is no blaring music, there are no tv screens advertising things, the aisles are wide enough and not blocked by piles of products about to be piled on the shelves. Talking of the products, there is always a wide variety of everything, and yes, as I mentioned earlier somethings are quite expensive… but lots of things are a competitive price with other supermarkets. If you want something rare or unusual, an exotic spice, a particular cheese for a recipe, a seasonal fruit (eg Seville oranges for marmalade) then Waitrose is the place to go.

It was started at the beginning of the twentieth century by a Mr Waite, a Mr Rose and a Mr Taylor who dropped away from the partnership. Waitrose was originally in the south of England but has spread more widely, and you might often find their shops at motorway services – welcome break ( a little pun there!)

I notice we’ve run out of our favourite cheese, Comté… maybe we need to make a little shopping trip…

I despair of myself!!

So… Saturday 2nd of February, a busy day; first I have my Gaelic class, then in the afternoon  some dear friends are going to be dropping in for tea. A busy day but a very nice day. I know! I’ll try that nice recipe for Seville orange marmalade cake I saw in the Waitrose magazine.


So Friday night I make the cake, which is a strange recipe, cream the butter and sugar (I used real 100% butter not margarine) then add six eggs, then add 100ml of single cream, ground almonds, marmalade (home-made by my husband)  and last of all the flour. I doubled the recipe so I could make a cake for my friends and buns for my Gaelic class. It only needed a short cooking time, just over 25 minutes and came out of the oven looking lovely. We tested one of the buns, and they were delicious!


So… This morning up early to ice the cakes with a special frosting and discovered that the recipe said Marscapone and I had bought creme fraiche… I’m sure it will do! I make the syrup to pour over the cake and while it is heating I begin to mix the creme fraiche (not Marscapone)  yoghurt, marmalade and icing sugar… and it doesn’t work… it makes a delicious cold sauce, but it is not frosting and would just run off the cake. Thinks… I know, make a butter cream and add the runny frosting…

Why am I such an idiot? Do I not concentrate properly? Is my head too full of the people in my stories? I put butter and some of the frosting in a bowl, mix it and it splits – it looks like… split mixture, sloppy and with bits of butter bobbing about. I know how to make butter icing, why did I not do it properly? Who knows. I persevere, beating it more and more and it does begin to mix properly but when I taste it the texture is not right.

I glance at the clock… nearly nine o’clock already! The teacher will be arriving at nine-thirty! What to do? Think, think… Start again. I will make butter icing and forget the frosting and just add a little marmalade for flavour.

Hurrah! Sort of success! I quickly spread the result on the buns, onto the cakes, sandwich them together, more spread on top, voilá! Nearly nine-thirty, quick into the shower and get ready, trying to think some Gaelic thoughts. Oh no! I need to make some sandwiches for our teacher to take home – he comes all the way from Essex by train, he’s up at three (yes 3a.m.) in the morning, he won’t be home till late, he needs a picnic to eat on the way home after teaching us all day…


All the way fromEssex

I glance out of the window, no sign of any cars, people usually park outside our house before going to the village hall for the lesson… I glance at the clock… nearly twenty to nine…

A dreadful thought occurs… I check my calendar… Gaelic is next week…

May, Elly's birthday

What were you thinking?… Der, dunno!

Not wasting…

You’re probably looking at this photo and thinking it is a jar of marmalade; if you could see the label properly you would see it says Barmalade (marmalade made by Bari) and you might be wondering why I have posted a picture showing such a scruffy pot, all sticky round the top, a rather marked label… not really very attractive looking, even though the contents are a lovely dark colour…

DSCF2467… a lovely dark coffee colour, because in fact it is coffee! We finished this jar of marmalade for breakfast but there was still some little bits stuck in the corners; I poured coffee into the jar, swooshed it about a bit, poured it into cups with extra water and milk and tra-la! Seville coffee! Tasted good!

Marmalade… it’s an Elsden thing

Only Seville oranges should be used, knobbly, firm, misshapen, the unique bitter orange scent on their skins promising gold.  Lemons (not limes except in an emergency) add to the piquancy and as well as sugar, black treacle is the telling ingredient.

The method

It is such a chore cutting, slicing, squeezing, preparing the oranges… do it the Donald way, put all the fruit in a pan, cover with enough water and boil until soft.

Cut the cooked fruit in half when cool and scoop the soft flesh out of the shells of the skin. Easy.

Then slice the peel as finely or as chunkily as you prefer; we like a good slice, my mum’s sister Beryl liked a very fine thin slice which almost vanished in the next cooking.

The right sized slice of peel

Put all the flesh into a muslin (or an old clean nylon stocking) and squeeze all the lovely pectin-y juices from it.

Then comes the boiling with the sugar and black treacle and that’s when the first marmaladey aromas as opposed to fruity smells, begin to drift through the house.

Bottle when ready, admire your work, sample and store.



Favoured friends may be lucky to receive a sample!


Marmalade…Parmalade… Barmalade….

Some of the earliest of my childhood memories comes from the dark nights of late January when each year, my dad would make marmalade. My sister and I would lie in our beds in our bedroom at the front of the flat where we lived in Cambridge and the delicious warm smells of Seville oranges and black treacle would drift through… and in the morning there would be a shelf full of gleaming pots of gold, Dad’s marmalade. Dad would make a special pot of shred free marmalade for  my sister who only liked the jelly. The first taste of new marmalade was wonderful, it had a fresh fruity flavour which over the months would develop and mature as the new batch developed and matured in its dark cupboard, darkening and deepening as it aged. This marmalade would keep for years… although it didn’t; we had it every morning with breakfast and only the occasional pot would still be in the cupboard or on the breakfast table the following January when the new batch was made.

I am sure that my grandmother  made marmalade, I am sure it was a family thing in my Dad’s childhood just as it was in mine but I don’t think his recipe was from his mother. I think, although I am not sure, that he found the recipe he used in the Daily Telegraph. Over the forty or so years he made marmalade he developed his own recipe, adapting the method rather than changing the product.

There would be a difference in the taste in different years because of the differences in the Seville oranges, some more sweet, some more juicy, some with some tiny difference in flavour which changed the marmalade. All his marmalade was good but some years were definitely above average. As with all food in our household, the new batch was discussed and debated… flavour, texture, sweetness, bitterness.. because bitter is a good thing in marmalade, it has to be tangy and sharp, it is not a jam, it is… marmalade.