Marmalade Today, Jam Tomorrow

I find that after a piece of fruit, some muesli and yoghurt and a milky coffee, I don’t have the appetite for toast at breakfast anymore. But today I made myself a mid-morning snack of toast with mandarin marmalade accompanied by a cup of black lapsang souchong tea. Half the pleasure came from the fact that I’d made the marmalade myself.

+ tea

I’m not much of a jam maker: it’s probably anxiety associated with figuring out when ‘setting’ stage has been reached, and the fiddliness of sterilising lots of jars. One solution to the jar issue would be to make smaller batches, but this seems a bit counterintuitive. I tend to associate making jam with making lots of jam. It’s partly because, as Gay Bilson has pointed out, we tend to make the error of thinking in terms of the fruit, when we should be thinking in terms of the fruit and sugar combined. It’s also about seeing preserving as a way of dealing with gluts and windfalls: you know, that box you got from the market near closing time. Or we make lots of jam because we want to move large amounts of it at the school fete.

Anyhow, the recipe, which is disarmingly simple, is below, but it got me thinking about the history of marmalade, and food history is always insightful, not least because it puts some of our current concerns about globalisation into some sort of perspective.

I recalled reading somewhere that Dundee became the centre of marmalade manufacture because oranges from Spain arrived there as the backload on boats that had shipped coal to Catalonia, a region which underwent an early industrialisation while the rest of Spain remained a rural, peasant-based economy. Perhaps this was in Robert Hughes’ book on Barcelona, which I don’t have to hand. I can’t find any other record of this theory – although I did find out that Spain is the world’s top market for Scotch whisky, so perhaps now it’s a case of whisky outbound/oranges home.

mandarinsWhatever the historical explanation, the Scots still like to think of themselves as the inventors of marmalade, although the word derives from marmelo, which is Portuguese for quince, and quince preserves were probably the inspiration for English and Scottish preserve-making. Nowadays, under EU law ‘marmalade’ can only be applied to fruit preserves made from citrus. A product made with any other kind of fruit must be called jam. (Whenever I hear something like this it brings to mind memories of the dreaded ‘euro-sausage’ from an episode of ‘Yes, Minister’).

But the Scots didn’t just need the fruit, they also needed the sugar. The oranges in Dundee marmalade are Seville oranges, which are not sweet at all. We rarely see them in Australia – or not in Melbourne, at least – but I recall staying in the Barrio Santa Cruz in Seville early one January many years ago, and plucking oranges from the trees where they grew abundantly – mainly so I could pretentiously record in my journal ‘Didst breakfast on oranges from the Alcazar…’. But on biting into them, they were near impossible to eat. So the other part of the marmalade equation was the West Indian plantation system and the slave trade, which made sugar accessible to the British Isles.

Sidney Mintz in Sweetness and Power has described how the use of sugar by the eighteenth century British working class provides the first instance in history of the mass consumption of imported food staples. But this was in relation to sugar’s connection with new stimulant beverages: tea, coffee and chocolate. Marmalade doesn’t just require sugar, it requires lots and lots of sugar. It was a dramatic drop in the price of sugar (due to the removal of duties) in the mid-nineteenth century, along with the perfection of relatively reliable and cheap preserving techniques, that saw preserves adopted as a convenience food by the working class: full of calories, cheap and appealing to children, and tasting better than costly butter on store-bought bread.

So whilst I think of Dundee marmalade as a quintessentially Scottish product, it’s worth remembering that it contains no indigenous Scottish produce but depends entirely on ingredients being shipped from around the world.

There is now a Marmalade Festival, held not in Dundee but in England’s Lake District. During the festival, the local vicar offers up the following in church:

‘Let us remember in our prayers those who grow fruit and those who process fruit. Especially oranges. Let us remember in our prayers those who make marmalade. And those who eat it.’

So if you make and eat marmalade you’ll be twice blessed. And if you grow your own mandarins, thrice blessed.


(adapted from Gail and Kevin Donovan’s Salute!)

Take a dozen or so organic mandarins (or, at least, unsprayed: you’re using the rind after all) and cut into pieces. I cut each into 6 or 8 pieces, depending on the size of the mandarin. Soak the cut up fruit in a cup and a half of water for several hours or overnight.

Bring the fruit and water mixture to the boil and then simmer until the rind is soft (about 30 minutes or so).

Measure out the fruit mixture into a new saucepan and then add the same volume in sugar.

Heat up, stirring and dissolving the sugar. Add 4 tablespoons of lemon juice, bring to the boil and boil until setting stage (shudder: this will take again about 30-45 minutes. The test everyone recommends is to put a blob of the marmalade on a chilled saucer, return it to the fridge for a few minutes, then run your finger through the blob to separate it into halves. If the halves remain separate, you’ve reached setting stage nirvana. I take a near-enough-is-good-enough approach. Most preserves will set further as they cool in a jar)

Ideally, stir in something like Cointreau or Grand Marnier if you have some to hand.

Spoon into sterilised jars, etc, etc.


11 thoughts on “Marmalade Today, Jam Tomorrow

  1. I LOVE marmalade and have a bowl full of cumquats patiently waiting on top of the microwave for me to do something to them. I just might do to them what you did to your mandarins, and see what happens…

  2. I have her weighty tome organised by ingredient and will see if I can find it there.

    A friend suggested pickling them by pricking them and then simply leaving them in a jar of booze for six months.

  3. It’s from the very early “Feasts and Stories” not the Stripey Bible – but I found it online, with her Brandied Cumquats recipe too. I do love the interwebs.

    And on the subject of Saint Stephanie, here is Chris Scanlon, via Gut Feelings on Stuff White Melbourne People Like:

    Stephanie: If invited to dinner by a Melbourne white person, it is a certainty that the recipe will come from “Stephanie”. If you go to a lot of parties thrown by Melbourne white people, you might form the impression that everyone in Melbourne has a kindly neighbour called Stephanie who hands out recipes over the back fence.

    In fact, Stephanie is short for Stephanie Alexander, author of The Cook’s Companion. Melbourne white people refer to Stephanie by her first name as if they know her personally. It is not known why this is so. All you need to know is that The Cook’s Companion is the official Melbourne white person’s cookbook. If you have to cook for a Melbourne white person, you should select a recipe from this cook book. The only exception is if you’re preparing quince, in which case it’s acceptable to refer to “Maggie”.

  4. “…didst breakfast on oranges from the Alcazar”

    Heh – so romantic. I made the same mistake in Cordoba. I gamely chewed on, like the Shelbyvillean father and son in the Simpsons when they steal Springfield’s lemon tree.

    Now about sterilising jars. My dear departed nan would go spare if she were reading this, but I’ve never found it necessary to do all the farting about everyone says you must. Just submerging the jars in a sink full of tap-hot water, and spooning the jam/marmalade in hot, has always been quite adequate.

    What say you, readers?

  5. Yeah, I’m a bit of a fan of that juice – or the mandarin/mango combination specifically. It manages to taste quite intensly of each fruit. I tend to water it down with soda water. Makes a good ice cream flavour base too.

  6. Deliciously written. I’ve just inherited my parent’s grog cabinet with assorted bottles of cumquat liqueur that I helped make as a child, one year when mum was sick of making marmalade.

    We picked them, pricked them, stuffed them in bottles, then poured in sugar and alcohol and plugged them up.

    I think the vodka base was voted most successful shortly after but after a decade or so had passed they all tasted quite rich and smooth. Now forty years on, it just tastes like drunk marmalade to me.

  7. Hardly a hoard, I’m afraid Laura. To tell the truth, that’s the last piece left in the house – although it’s what I instinctively reached for when setting up the marmalade photoshoot.

    We did have more Wood’s Ware pieces at one stage, including cups and sauces. I recall once serving a guest her tea and she looked mildly distressed and muttered something about boarding school.

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