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.


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