Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Marmalade Contraband

Marmalade Contraband

G calls from London City Airport, from where he is flying to Switzerland. I had packed him off with a jar of marmalade to give to his overnight host, but he reports that it has just been confiscated by the customs officers. (I thought that rule applied only to liquids, and wonder if I should be offended by this apparent slur on the consistency of my marmalade.)

So, if you are reading this, airport officials, I do understand that you had to follow the rules, but please do eat the marmalade and don't just leave it in a bin with the penknives and nail scissors and other suspicious items. It was made with love and care and it's very good on soft white toast.

This reminds me of a story G once told me about this same Swiss host, who we shall call A. A few years ago, A was staying with G in England and was keen to acquire all the correct habits of an English gentleman. So when G came home one afternoon to find his Swiss lodger eating marmalade on toast, he was forced to point out that if he wanted to pass muster as an Englishman, he should never eat marmalade at any time except at breakfast.

Do we agree?

(I agree with it in principle, though confess I eat marmalade all day – but then I do have quite a lot to get through.)

Monday, 27 February 2012

The Infinite Variety of Marmalade

The Infinite Variety of Marmalade

Last year was the first time I made marmalade. I made one large batch and considered the job done. We ran out in March. So this year, clearly, I need to make a lot more.

My plan is to make a virtue of this problem and try out a number of different recipes until I find one that I can call my own.

Having already made one batch of my mother’s recipe, I thought I’d do a definitive, classic Seville orange recipe to establish a control group before venturing down any other paths. So I went looking for such a recipe – and discovered that there is no such thing.

Julian Barnes already knew this. In his book Pulse, while explaining the Marmalade Theory of Britishness*, one character observes of marmalade that ‘everyone does it differently and everyone thinks theirs is the right way’.

Having looked in vain for that one definitive recipe, I can now confirm that this is absolutely true. In fact, what I find is that most people faithfully follow their mother’s recipe and have no idea that there is another way.

For example, until I attended a marmalade-making demo recently at Fortnum’s, I had no idea that you didn’t need to use a muslin bag to put all your pips and pulp in. The cooks just chopped up all the fruit and peel, fished out the pips, and shoved everything back in the pan. Excellent marmalade and not a whiff of muslin anywhere. This was a revelation.

And after spending a day in Cumbria at the World Marmalade Awards this weekend, listening to people talk about how they make their marmalade, it’s clear that everyone has a slightly/completely different method to mine. It’s amazing that we all end up with the same thing.

Perplexed, I have just done a brief survey of a handful of my cookbooks. Between Agnes Jekyll, Constance Spry, Nigella Lawson, Prue Leith, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Delia Smith, all of whom can be trusted to do things properly, the methods vary enormously. Lids on or off, muslin or no muslin, pith in or out, warm sugar or cold, boil oranges first or peel them first… There seem to be no rules whatsoever.

This is going to be more interesting than I thought.

*The Marmalade Theory of Britishness
In Julian Barnes’s Pulse, Phil is trying to refute his friend’s theory that, thanks to the Euro and the EU etc., we’re all the same now – British, French, whatever. Phil disagrees and presents as his evidence a survey, which found that everyone makes marmalade slightly differently. Which for him means that while we think we’re all the same, underneath we’re in fact very different.

As a theory of Britishness, it’s a bit tenuous; but as an observation upon the making of marmalade, it’s spot on.

PS – A Definition of Marmalade
At the Fortnum’s demo, Jane Hasell-McCosh* gave out tasters of her marmalades, including a Kitchen Garden Marmalade, in which one of the ingredients is rhubarb. One of the audience asked if this was strictly marmalalade, as surely it had to be citrus. According to Jane, it depends what your local trading standards officer says. In Cumbria, it counts as marmalade, because it is primarily citrus; in another county it might not. And we won’t even get into what the EU thinks. I’m strangely delighted that Britain doesn’t appear to have a legal definition for one of its favourite foods. I will have to look into this.

*Founder of the World Marmalade Awards – I know I’ve mentioned them a lot recently, but they are the equivalent of the Marmalade Olympics, so they do tend to crop up a lot.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

The World Marmalade Awards

Competitive Marmalade

Heading home after a day at the World Marmalade Awards, smug in the knowledge that my first ever entry into the novice competition was awarded 16/20 by the lovely WI ladies.

I got 2/2 for appearance, 4/5 for colour, 4/6 for consistency, texture and quality and 6/7 for flavour and aroma. The overall verdict was ‘Good flavour, rather syrupy consistency.’ I have to agree – that syrupy thing is a problem. But if I ever wanted advice on how to make marmalade, this was the place to get it. Two of the WI judges, Eileen and Doreen, were on hand for quizzing, so I asked them how I could improve the texture. Eileen suggested that I might be over-boiling it, which alters the water-to-sugar proportions and makes it too sweet and syrupy.

Clearly I’ve been treating my marmalade a little roughly. So it’s back to the stove for another try.

My mission is to arrive at the perfect, foolproof marmalade recipe that is carefully fine-tuned, taking in bits of advice like Eileen's, without being too complicated. Marmalade is a very simple thing to make, really – and anyway it doesn’t have to be perfect to be good. As long as the peel is cooked properly so that it’s not chewy, it’s hard to make an inedible marmalade. Every marmalade is good in its own unique way.  But now I’ve got interested in the science and am determined to improve the texture. Next year I shall accept nothing less than 20/20 and a gold star on my scorecard.

Marmalade and what?
At the Marmalade Awards, the artisan marmalades (the ones made by small commercial companies) are put out for public tasting after they have been judged; the jars are lined up on tables in a long barn, with plastic spoons to hand and slices of toast for sale. It’s a kind of marmalade free-for-all.

The variety was astonishing; and no two marmalades tasted the same, even with exactly the same ingredients. There were some bizarre combinations, however, some of which worked and some of which really didn’t. For example:

Thumbs Up
  • Seville Orange with Liquorice – really surprisingly good, mostly because the liquorice was very underplayed.
  • Seville Orange with Chocolate – should work of course, as the flavour pairing is a classic, but one can’t quite imagine how the fats of the chocolate and the acidic, jellied oranges will merge. But they do. Oh, they do. 
  • Margarita Marmalade (sugar, water, lemon, lime & tequila). Fabulous because, again, very subtly flavoured with not too much tequila. Sharp and refreshing and an excellent concept.

Thumbs Down
As this is a relentlessly positive blog, I won’t have a Thumbs Down list, but after extensive tasting I have resolved never to put beetroot, carrot or basil in my marmalade. 

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Making Marmalade: Batch One

Making Marmalade: Batch One

First batch of marmalade on the stove. Rather late in the year, but just catching the tail end of the Sevilles. Lovely smell of boiling oranges first thing this morning, then the sharper, more syrupy smell of the marmalade itself around teatime.

This is my mother’s recipe, the classic combination of Seville oranges, the juice of a lemon, mostly white sugar with a bit of soft dark brown, and she puts all the mush and pips in a muslin bag. I think this is referred to as the jelly method. (My finished marmalade last year was more syrupy than jellied, but I quite like it that way.)

Last year my marmalade wouldn’t set; but I think I wasn’t boiling it hard enough, so this year for Batch One I cranked up the heat (I use the wok ring) and it was at setting point in 25 minutes. I nearly ruined it by nipping upstairs to check if anyone had tracked down some Sicilian Orange & Coffee Marmalade for me (see earlier post, still no luck), and came back down to find the pot had turned into a bubbling volcano of orange froth and was almost over the rim. Which would explain why, in my mother’s handwritten recipe, it says ‘WATCH IT!’ in large capital letters just after the ‘bring to a fast boil’ bit.

The result is a darkish, bitter, syrupy marmalade, which would probably horrify the WI, but is just what I’m used to – a very nostalgic taste. G, my other half, says that it’s ‘interesting’. Total yield: 10 jars (of varying sizes).

Homemade or MaMade?
Ordering Seville oranges on Ocado’s site and notice with amusement that Seville oranges are abundant and plentiful but MaMade is sold out. Clearly London’s cooks are short of time this year.

I haven’t used MaMade – a large can of prepared Seville oranges to which you just add sugar and water - but have been told by a couple of small, artisan marmalade-makers that it is very good and that they use it with impunity when their fresh Sevilles run out. I would use it if I could be assured that you still get the nice smell of boiling oranges. Perhaps an experiment is in order.

Man-made Marmalade
It is a truth not often acknowledged that an awful lot of men make marmalade. The World Marmalade Awards includes an entire category for Man-made Marmalade, and last year’s overall winner was a man, Lord Henley. Several of my male friends of a certain age make it, and take it very seriously. (My theory is that men enjoy any kind of cooking that involves large equipment, and marmalade does indeed need a pretty big pot.)

For example, here is AA Gill on the subject of marmalade, in a review of the Savoy Grill for The Times in May 2011:
‘You grow to love food writers in a way you don’t with novelists, because you share so much with them. They become real with the eating. Every January I make Elizabeth David’s marmalade, and there she is each morning for breakfast.’

More evidence of male marmaladers to follow shortly.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Coffee & Oranges

Coffee & Oranges

Reading The Flavour Thesaurus last night (dear Bloomsbury, please make a waterproof jacket, I read mine in the bath and it is covered in damp thumbprints) I came across the 'Coffee and Orange' entry, which included:
a) a reference to a Sicilian Orange & Coffee Marmalade made by San Matteo, which led on to
b) a stonking recipe that involves studding an orange with 44 coffee beans and drowning it in brandy. 
So obviously I have to try both. The recipe is not even remotely a marmalade, but it is an orange preserve, so it's definitely a legitimate diversion.

But first, I have to find this orange and coffee marmalade. It is made in Sicily on an organic farm ‘nestled between the enchanting Gulf of Taormina and Mount Etna’ and the farmer uses wheat syrup instead of sugar, which is interesting.

Finding the website is easy enough, but then I fall at the first hurdle, as they ship from a warehouse in the Bronx and don’t deliver to the UK, even though it's much nearer. No fair. So I send them an email, which doesn't get me very far, as they don't know if it is available here. So I may have to to get my friend in Boston to order it and send it on, which is quite a lot of work for a jar of marmalade. If anyone knows of a UK stockist, please do let me know.

Proof that everyone has something to say about marmalade, No. 2:
Lunch with Juliet (see 9 Feb entry). Over the course of a single meal, she told me the thing about orange being the colour for 2012, and two more things about marmalade:

1) She’d had a conversation with a colleague two days beforehand about whether it's true that only men like dark, thick-cut marmalade. (Not true, I'm sure. But am delighted that people discuss marmalade at work.)

2) That she’d once come home from work to find her then husband admiring several batches of marmalade that he’d spent the day making. He’d worked his way through several different varieties – thin-cut, medium-cut, thick-cut, marmalade with whisky, etc - which would have been fine, except that he was supposed to be working on a PhD and this was his way of avoiding it. So marmalade can now add 'diversion tactic' to its list of fine qualities.

This is why this blog is so easy. I say the word ‘marmalade’ and people provide me with reams of unsolicited material, all of it entertaining.

On that note, I’ll finish with two assertions, in the hope that someone will write in, disgusted, outraged or otherwise provoked.

1) As discussed above, only men like thick-cut, dark marmalade - the sort that needs gouging out of the jar with a strong spoon and has to be balanced in lumps on the toast. 
2) Marmalade is fundamentally more interesting than jam. Discuss.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

2012: The Year of (the) Orange

The Year of (the) Orange

In a conversation with my friend Juliet, who works in PR and is required to know such things, I learned that orange is the colour for 2012. (Tangerine Tango, to be precise. Pantone 17-1463 to be very precise.) Apparently a bold and spirited colour is required to lift us all out of the economic doldrums. This is either a bit of marketing nonsense or a very good omen as I begin a blog about marmalade. And it will be the first time (and certainly the last time) that I can claim to be on trend.

Marmalade is a curiosity. Impeccably British but invented by the Portuguese, it is adored by some, yet largely ignored by many quite sensible, food-loving nations who make orange jam and call it marmalade, when it isn’t the same thing at all. So my mission is to find out what makes it so appealing, and to celebrate it in all its quirky loveliness as the Year of Orange unfolds.

I chose marmalade as a subject because: 
a) I like to eat it, 
b) it is, surprisingly, not written about as much as you’d expect, and 
c) whenever I bring it up, everyone has something to say about it, in a way that they don’t about, say, strawberry jam. This intrigues me.

For example, while eating dinner with a friend last month, I mentioned that I was writing about marmalade and he immediately recalled a heated debate that he had had with his sister about whether marmalade should be eaten on hot toast or cold. From my notebook I read out a snippet of research, copied from a newspaper months earlier, which concluded that it was best on cold toast. (See full snippet below.) ‘Damn!’ he said, ‘That’s what Lou said!’

Two days later, Lou, who I hadn’t seen for several years, emailed me. ‘Ha!’ she said. ‘I knew I was right about the cold toast!’

My point is - would you ever have a reaction like that to a conversation about strawberry jam? 

I chose marmalade also because it’s hard to be too pretentious about it. Other foods, such as chocolate or tea or olive oil, attract a lot of foodie jargon, with descriptions of tobacco, toffee and tarmac on the palate, which is no use to me, as I don’t have a sophisticated palate at all. But marmalade at its simplest is just oranges, sugar and water. You can’t be that pretentious about it. You can only be enthusiastic.

So my mission for the Year of Orange is to have as many conversations about marmalade as possible and report back with my findings. I’ll also be making marmalade (and eating it and cooking with it) and reporting on that, too. With any luck, the results will be interesting to everyone and not just to me.

And now the snippet:
In March 2011, various newspapers reported an amusing piece of research by the Manchester Food Research Centre at Manchester Metropolitan University regarding the best way to eat marmalade. The study concluded that marmalade was best eaten on cold toast.

They explained (poetically if unscientifically), 'The initial resistant crunch of the cold toast provides the ultimate contrast to the velvety, yielding marmalade as the zingy orange flavours explode across the palate releasing endorphins in the brain.'

They went on to stipulate that the bread should be white, 0.9 cm thick and toasted for one minute at 220C. The toast should be left to cool for 10 minutes and then spread with 7.1g of lightly salted butter and 11.2g of fine-cut marmalade. The rate of thickness of bread to butter in marmalade is expressed as 9:1:2.

So now you know.