Friday, 9 June 2017

Marmalade & Brexit

Marmalade & Brexit

As the country settles back down after another unsettling election result and turns its anxious attention to the upcoming Brexit negotiations, I am happy to report that marmalade may turn out to be a key bargaining point.

In the Sunday Times magazine on 21 May, Guy Verhofstadt, former Prime Minister of Belgium and now the European parliament’s lead Brexit negotiator, told the 'Life In A Day' interviewer that he always starts his day with a cappuccino, Greek yogurt – and toast and marmalade. ‘I’m a fan of British marmalade’ he said, citing a ‘deep respect’ for our ability to make it just right, i.e. not too sweet and just bitter enough. I think this bodes well, don’t you? If he wants to get his daily dose of marmalade, he’ll have to keep his tariffs to himself.

So while Liam Fox was roundly ridiculed last year for his suggestion that France was in need of ‘high-quality, innovative British jams and marmalades', maybe he was on to something. I suggest he slips a jar of Fortnum's finest into Teresa May's briefcase as she heads for the Eurostar. It could make all the difference.

Then again, as the PM is already a fan of marmalade as a political tool - she gave the Trumps a hamper containing Bakewell tarts, damson jam and marmalade back in January - perhaps she's way ahead of me on this one. We can but hope.

Friday, 15 January 2016

The many uses of a Seville orange

The Many Uses of a Seville Orange

While I was lazing about after Christmas, it was a relief to see that other people were hard at work, writing interesting copy about my favourite fruit. That meant that I could link to their post and go back to watching TV and eating chocolate biscuits.

So, with many thanks to the ever-busy and highly readable Bee Wilson, I recommend this page to you, which she wrote for the Guardian about the many merits and uses of Seville oranges. Before we came up with the idea of marmalade for breakfast, Tudor chefs were squeezing bitter oranges on to meat and fish and drying the peel to be chewed as a digestive aid. (I also highly recommend her new book, shown left, which is as thoughtful and interesting as Consider the Fork, one of my favourite books for lending to people who like food.)

This is one of those articles that mentions so many interesting things that one ends up with a long to-do list, namely:
  • re-read the history of oranges in England
  • dry some orange peel (and perhaps dip it in a little plain chocolate)
  • order a copy of Bitter by Jennifer McLagen 
  • make bitter orange powder to sprinkle on my food
  • whip up some Seville mayonnaise
  • make Jane Hasell McCosh's three-fruit marmalade (the founder of the World Marmalade Awards and an excellent cook)
  • buy a jar of Military Marmalade from Fortnum's, the best she's tasted, says Bee.
I've managed one of these so far (I ordered the book); and as the Sevilles have just come in, I can soon tick two more off the list.

By coincidence, I spotted a Jane Grigson book, The Enjoyment of Food, on a friend's kitchen table recently, and found several reference to 'oranges' in the index (I always look in indexes for 'oranges' or 'marmalade', even if the book's not about food), so I took it home to Xerox the relevant pages. She writes beautifully and economically about the history of oranges and how they arrived in England; and she, too, notes how bitter oranges were once as ubiquitous as lemons in British cooking. 

It was barely two pages, but was as absorbing as Bee's feature, so I'll write more about this in the next day or two. But, as a preview, there was one quite enlightening sentence about how little we use bitter things in cooking: 'Bitters belong to gin, to marmalade and that's that.' With regard to my own palate, that suddenly explains a lot. 

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Murder and marmalade

Murder and Marmalade

One of the benefits of being obsessed with marmalade is that it leads me down many unlikely paths in a nicely random way. In particular, I often find that I'm buying, leafing through or reading books purely because they promise to mention marmalade at some point.

Some of these aren't too odd - From Russia with Love, for example, which describes James Bond's breakfast habits, mentioning both of my favourite subjects in one sentence (marmalade and Fortnum & Mason - I used to work there and rather miss it). And so:

‘Breakfast was Bond’s favourite meal of the day. When he was stationed in London it was always the same. It consisted of very strong coffee, from De Bry in New Oxford Street, brewed in an American Chemex, of which he drank two large cups, black and without sugar. The single egg, in the dark blue egg cup with a gold ring round the top, was boiled for three and a third minutes… Then there were two thick slices of wholewheat toast, a large pat of deep yellow Jersey butter and three squat glass jars containing Tiptree ‘Little Scarlet’ strawberry jam; Cooper’s Vintage Oxford marmalade and Norwegian Heather Honey from Fortnum’s. The coffee pot and the silver on the tray were Queen Anne, and the china was Minton, of the same dark blue and gold and white as the egg cup.’

So if you feel like assassinating someone today, that's what you should have for breakfast. Who would have thought that a man licensed to kill would be so particular?

Next up was Agatha Christie's A Pocket Full of Rye, which, I read somewhere, uses marmalade as a murder weapon (sorry, spoiler alert). To find the reference, I've had to read the book, which has been a happy experience - I've never read any Christie before and it's fun. It's quite dry and witty and full of interesting characters, and I had no idea whodunnit until the right moment. I've just got to the bit where a jar of marmalade has been found in the shrubbery, so it's clearly the culprit.

The spin-off from this was that I read somewhere else that Christie chose marmalade as the poison carrier because she didn't like marmalade, which struck me as odd. Apparently she wrote a list of things that she liked and disliked, the latter including marmalade, oysters and loud parties. So I've now had to buy her autobiography to find out if it was true. That arrived yesterday and it's quite thick, with very small print. But these are all things that I wouldn't have read otherwise, and I like reading unexpected things. 

Next on the list: Oxford by James Morris, a biography of Frank Cooper and a peculiar little book called This is the book that the author made, which has marmalade in its title. More soon.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Local Marmalade

Local Marmalade

I don't often write about where I live, but I should. In the seven years since I've lived here, it has been transformed from a scruffy collection of fast food outlets and nondescript shops into a rather chic little neighbourhood – from fast food to slow food, if you will. Where there was once a kebab shop, three or four greasy spoons and too many places selling fried things with chips, we now have an ice cream shop, a greengrocer, a fishmonger, a butcher and a baker (no candlestick maker yet) as well as a gift shop, hairdresser, yoga studio, children's clothes shop and this lovely cafe, where I am sitting right now. 

The nicer shops survived the cull – Rustique ('The Literary Cafe', battered old furniture, secondhand books and charming, shady garden), the hardware store (excellent cheap saucepans), the friendly dry cleaner and the sewing-machine shop, where an old man sits, tinkering with the internal workings of someone's Singer, and where you can buy buttons, thread and Dylon. The only sad casualty was the charity shop, which was immensely useful and is much missed. Whatever replaces it had better be good, or the locals will scowl through the window and walk on by. (Estate agents, beware.)

But anyway, what does this have to do with marmalade?

The joy of living here is the nearness of everything. I have got into the habit now of food shopping every day, something I would have once considered a chore, or just inefficient. But after the school run (3 minutes), I can pop into the grocer (2 minutes along the street) and then into Bear + Wolf for coffee (1 minute), pick up stuff from the dry-cleaner and be back home 3 minutes later, even while pushing a pram. So when, on a sunny May morning, it feels like time for a treat, we can be here for breakfast in a matter of minutes, with minimal forward planning.

And the marmalade...?

My son had waffles, bananas and maple syrup with a banana and orange smoothie; I had sourdough toast and this marmalade.  The baby had crumbs from our plates (she loves a good chewy crust). It was a success all round, and not least because of the marmalade (and the pools of melting butter on my toast, I had to wash my hands before typing).

I knew it would be good when I saw the Dalemain sticker; it has a gold award from the World Marmalade Awards, about which I have written copiously in the past, so I won't here. But it's a good sign. Matthew, the cafe's owner, explained that it came from the mother of a friend, who is based in south London and Exmoor (now, there's a nice life), and it's really very good. It's a classic bittersweet Seville, with a proper homemade flavour, not too set, lots of peel, very delicious. I recommend it. And you don't even have to live in north London – she'll send it by post. Marmalade in the mail – what a happy concept.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

A Korean marmalade drink

Drinking Marmalade

Now that the Seville season is over, I am looking for new things to write about that don't involve actually making marmalade. While thinking about this last night, I remembered that I had a jar of Yuja Cha lurking at the back of my fridge that I hadn't yet investigated, so I pulled it out from behind several other neglected jars and boiled the kettle.

I first heard about this hybrid preserve/drink from a cousin of G's, who travels to the Far East regularly and told me that the Koreans make a kind of marmalade as the basis for a hot drink. Made from yuzu, a Korean citrus fruit, it is a peel-heavy preserve that you simply add to hot water for a very refreshing drink.

It happens that one of the parents in my son's class is Korean, so I asked her about it. She said it was hard to get here, but would ask her family to bring some over – and so they did. A few weeks later, she presented me with this jar – homemade and hand-labelled in English, just for me.

Inside was a concoction of thick-cut, bitter peel in a sticky, sweet jelly, almost like a candied peel. I noticed that they had written 'fermented' on the label, rather than just 'preserved' – and it has in fact been in my fridge for a year or more, but is not at all spoiled, so is clearly a brilliant way to keep oranges edible (the original point of preserves).

Tasted alone, it is quite bitter, so clearly uses far less sugar than actual marmalade. Dissolved in a cup of hot water it is astringent, not too sweet and very refreshing. I can't imagine why we haven't adopted this in England as an alternative to lemon and ginger, which I don't really like.

The Koreans make medicinal claims for it, just as we do for hot lemon and honey or orange juice; full of vitamin C, it is allegedly good for colds and flu. Just the smell alone would cure me. I recommend it.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Marmalade on Twitter

Marmalade on Twitter

The thing I like most about Twitter is how it leads you down lots of interesting paths, as like-minded people share photos, essays and recipes that I otherwise probably wouldn't see. This is assuming you follow the right people, of course – I spend my Twitter time stalking foodies and marmalade-makers, and Twitter is awash with marmalade references right now. In the same spirit of sharing, here are some of my favourite reads of the last few weeks.

This was a lovely piece about discovering marmalade by food writer Rachel Roddy. (Her tagline is 'An Englishwoman living in Rome' which made me wildly envious, but I forgive her.) The photos are particularly stunning – check out the vintage postcards on her kitchen wall. It later turned out that she is a friend of a friend (hello, Dan) and he told me she has a book out soon – this one. So that's going in my Amazon pre-order basket.

This feature by Good Housekeeping was useful, as I learned a couple of things about marmalade that I didn't already know – chiefly that granulated sugar is better than caster sugar, as the granules are larger and dissolve more slowly (I love all the chemistry stuff about marmalade, it is delightfully complex). It was also good to learn that Waitrose has reported a 20% spike in Seville oranges compared to last year, so well done, everyone. I have to object to the photo, though - that maslin pan is too full of peel and will definitely boil over.

And then there was this piece by the marvellously named MargotTriesTheGoodLife, involving gin, lavender and sticky pork. Good recipe at the end.

And on this site I learned that Menton has a citrus festival every March...

...and on this one that you can add seaweed to your marmalade. Really.

There's more. But I'll save them for tomorrow. Enjoy.

Monday, 9 February 2015

Marmalade in Decline?

Is Marmalade Really in Decline?

On 17 January The Grocer reported, as it does with depressing regularity every January, that marmalade sales had fallen again, this year by 2.4% in value and 4.9% in volume. The culprits are always fingered as peanut butter and chocolate spread, whose relentless advance across the breakfast table seems in danger of eclipsing marmalade's very existence.

However, this year marmalade sales saw a bit of an upward blip, thanks to the release of the Paddington movie. A vein of marmalade runs right through the movie, from the wonderful Heath Robinson-style marmalade factory in the rainforest to the closing tableau, where the family kitchen is seen heaving with oranges (pedant that I am, they didn’t look like Sevilles) and Sally Hawkins saying dreamily ‘Every home should have a marmalade day.'

Within a week or two of the movie's release, Waitrose allegedly reported an 88% rise in marmalade sales, and Robertson’s – who produced the official tie-in marmalade – saw a 24% rise in Golden Shred. Happy news, although I’m a bit worried that it was caused by an entire generation of children saying, ‘What’s marmalade, Mummy?’

Felicity Cloake wrote this nice piece about it in the New Statesman, saying very much what I feel about marmalade becoming an endangered species:

‘I feel the British love of marmalade, a distinctly bitter preserve, chock full of chewy peel, says something valuable about the national character.’

So if it is in decline, what does that say about the state of the nation? Are we losing our backbone?

Maybe not.

I once heard an interview with Paddington author Michael Bond, who reckoned that the marmalade-in-decline story, which is trotted out every January, was invented by the manufacturers as a PR stunt. I’d like to believe him, but sadly I fear that the sales figures don’t lie.

What I'd like to believe instead is that the decline in sales is simply because more people are making their own, rejecting the over-jellied and blandly sweet commercial marmalades for the authentic joy of the homemade kind. There are hints that this may be the case. In past years, supermarkets have reported a rise in sales of Seville oranges; and the World Marmalade Awards, now in its 10th year, have seen the number of entries of homemade and artisan marmalade leap from around 50 jars in the first year to more than 2000 last year. If this is a reflection of how many people are taking up their wooden spoons, marmalade may not be in decline at all.

I will give the last word to this recent letter in The Times:

'Sir, The Grocer's report on falling marmalade sales may not be a true reflection of the preserve's popularity ("Marmalade is toast at home," Jan 22). I would venture that the homemade variety is on the rise. But what recipe to try each January? In our household at least, this question often results in Seville war.'
Morton Warner
Emeritus professor, University of South Wales