Thursday, 25 September 2014

What's 'marmalade', Grandma?

What's 'marmalade', Grandma?

About a month ago, I heard a piece on the radio about words that were falling out of fashion – one of those stories that gets recycled each year when there's nothing much to write about – and was alarmed to hear that one of them was 'marmalade'.

Apparently, to use 'marvellous', 'fortnight' or 'marmalade' in everyday speech pegs you as an old-fashioned sort of cove best relegated to the pages of a P G Wodehouse novel. Or to a script by Julian Fellowes (though 'fortnight' might be a bit modern for him).

I am aghast. In a similar piece in the Guardian in August 2011 (See? It's always in August, nothing else happening out there), the supposedly endangered words included things such as 'aerodrome', 'charabanc' and 'wittol' (a man who tolerates his wife's adultery, apparently a word that is no longer needed). These I understand. We can live without the likes of 'cyclogiro' and 'drysalter' most of the time.

But 'marmalade'? What is going on?

Still, this perennial subject did give some rather bored journalists something amusing to do while everyone else was on their summer holidays. I rather liked this piece in the Guardian, particularly the bit about 'marvellous' at the end. It is essential to the English language because it is such a joy when used sarcastically, and you can't do the same with 'awesome'. Try it. It's just not the same.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

The English Preserve

The English Preserve

In The English Companion by Godfrey Smith, a compendium of all the things that we love best,  the entry for marmalade is sandwiched between 'Marks & Spencer' and 'marques' (as in posh car brands). It does contain one misapprehension, namely that the Scots invented marmalade (they didn't). But putting that aside, his short essay on marmalade is good fun, particularly the following three points:

1: 'It does not taste right on anything but toast, and at any time but breakfast.'
Quite. 

2: 'To take it with butter as well is a comparatively modern function of affluence.' 
An earlier post - here - agrees with this (see second extract - and, while you're at it, see AA Milne's 'The King's Breakfast' where the king is offered marmalade instead of butter), though I can't imagine it myself. The creaminess of the butter is essential as a counterpoint to the tart oranges. Still, it takes all sorts.

3. 'Marmalade still conveys the very faint sense of privilege at a price everyone can afford and remains the bittersweet debut to the English day.'
I'd never thought of marmalade as being simultaneously posh and accessible, but I think he's right.



Friday, 23 May 2014

A Bit of Trivia

A Bit of Trivia

Some time ago, while browsing through the office bookshelves in a lull between urging customers to buy more stuff, I found a promising four entries for marmalade in the index of  Traditional Foods of Britain (Laura Mason & Catherine Brown, Prospect Books), and three for marmelo, the Portuguese word for quince, which slowly evolved into 'marmalade'. 

The first marmelo reference is related to Jersey Black Butter, something my sister brought back for us to try on her last trip to Jersey, and which didn't immediately grab me. It was very thick, rich and sweet and slightly odd, so it's still sitting in the pantry, unloved. But it is exactly
 this kind of paste, or fruit cheese, that was originally known as marmalade, before it began to evolve into today's breakfast spread.

The book has a lengthy and detailed description of Dundee Marmalade, and includes the startling fact that 'nearly all bitter Seville oranges grown in southern Spain are destined for marmalade for the British market'. Someone should go to Spain and tell them they're missing out – how could the food-loving Spaniards not know the delights of Seville orange marmalade? I sense a marketing opportunity.

Further gems include the fact that the Empress of Russia and the Queen of Greece, both granddaughters of Queen Victoria, had marmalade sent to them by Wilkins of Tiptree, and that Frank Cooper of Oxford has in its archives a tin of marmalade from 1911, taken on Scott's expedition to the North Pole. It was found, frozen, in 1980. Marmalade also went up Mount Everest with the British team. Marmalade really does seem to be essential to keeping up those indomitable British spirits. More from this excellent book in due course.

A Question of Stereotypes

A Question of Stereotypes

While stuck in hospital recently, I ploughed through a huge number of books and some quite bad marmalade for breakfast; those wretched little plastic pots with the peel-off lids, full of thin orange jelly and maybe one very, very small piece of peel. (I'm not naming brand names, but you know who you are.)

That aside, I found an interesting phenomenon in several of the books I had chosen, which was that when marmalade came up in the narrative, it was linked to a certain kind of woman – expat, middle-aged, tough as old boots, you know the type. Or perhaps the stereotype. But that is still its image: old-school, British, stiff upper lip, backbone of the Empire. None of the younger characters ever mention marmalade. Must one be a battleaxe to have it linked to one's character?

Nevertheless, each mention of marmalade amused me, so here they are. I particularly like Elizabeth Jane Howard's immensely long sentence, so neatly constructed that it swoops elegantly and without fuss down the stairs along with the character.


The Piano Teacher, Janice Y. K. Lee

Hong Kong, November 1952: Minna Comstock is 'in her early fifties and formidable' [see what I mean?]

' "I bought a nice bathing suit at Wing-On," Claire ventured. "They have quite a lot of merchandise."

"Wear British," Mrs Comstock barked. "The items here are cut for the Chinese frame and aren't suitable for us. Too small. I always bring things back from home leave, good marmalade and proper knives. Have you seen what they call a knife here?" '


The Light Years, Elizabeth Jane Howard

'She stripped back her bed to air it – she came from the feather bed era when the airing of beds was a serious matter – opened the windows wide so that the room should also be thoroughly aired and went down to the morning room where she breakfasted earlier than the rest of the family on Indian tea and toast, one slice spread with butter, the other with marmalade – to have put both on one slice was, in her opinion, an absurd waste.'

I do recommend both books, long with A M Homes's This Book Will Save Your Life, which has nothing to do with marmalade but is one of the best things I've read all year.





Sunday, 30 March 2014

Wodehouse & Marmalade

Spent the last two weeks trawling through Wodehouse: A Life by Robert McCrum, convinced it would be full of marmalade references. After all, Wodehouse is the quintessential Englishman, and given that his rather foolish behaviour during WWII saw him exiled to the US, he surely must have sent for marmalade, rather as Edward VIII did in similar circumstances.

His novels are full of marmalade mentions - Bertie Wooster eats it all the time - but not, it seemed at first, the biography. But finally, on page 404 (16 pages before the end) there it was at last, as the author describes PG's daily routine in his US retreat in Remsenburg, Long Island.

'On most days, he would get up at half past seven, go out onto the porch at the back door, and do the "daily dozen" sequence of calisthenic exercises he had performed every day since 1920. While Ethel [his wife], always a late riser, was still upstairs in bed, Wodehouse would prepare his regular breakfast - toast and honey or marmalade, a slice of coffee cake and a mug of tea - and, as part of the early morning routine, he would read a "breakfast book", for example a Rex Stout or Ngaio Marsh mystery. Then he would light the first pipe of the day...'

Not quite the devotion to marmalade I had hoped to find, but never mind - it is a very enjoyable book, full of surprises. The revelation of the early chapters is that before he became known for Jeeves and Wooster, PG was a huge success in the US, writing scripts for popular musicals and mentoring the Gershwins, who looked up to him. This, along with his constant output of short stories and novels, made him a millionaire quite early on in his career. Also, it turns out that he was a compulsive writer - wherever he was, in England, France, the US or in a grim WWII internment camp, he just wrote and wrote and wrote, right into his 90s. Lucky us.

Friday, 28 February 2014

Judging the World Marmalade Awards

Judging the World Marmalade Awards

Last week I had the great privilege of staying at Dalemain Mansion in Cumbria, to take part in the judging of the artisan marmalades at the World Marmalade Awards. In theory I was there with my Fortnum's hat on (it co-hosts the awards and sells the winning marmalade) to write a feature for the website - see here - but inevitably I ended up helping out with the judging, and tasting an extraordinary array of marmalades, made with everything from tequila to Marmite (and yes, they were both good).

The judges included keen baker and food writer Dan Lepard; Sandy and Carole Boyd, the founders of the Ludlow Food Centre and Chatsworth Farm Shop; Ivan Day, the UK's go-to food historian; Jenny Linford, author of several food books including this one; and several others besides, all of whom were some of the friendliest people I've ever met, with not an ego between them, despite their fame and expertise. It must be the marmalade diet.

Above: John Aglionby of the FT and food-writer Dan Lepard

Within two minutes of arriving, I was standing in Dalemain's stone-flagged kitchen, discussing the setting properties of spaghetti squash with Dan, and the difficulty of balancing the sugar content with food consultant Michael Perry. The marmalade talk continued through dinner, eaten in a wood-panelled drawing room, warmed by a log fire, and with a Dalmatian and a dachshund sniffing for scraps under the table. It was one of the most convivial dinners I've ever attended. Our hostess was the exceptionally hospitable Jane Hasell-McCosh, who created the Marmalade Awards after finding an ancestor's recipe in a handwritten recipe book. She is single-handedly (well, aided by her helpful children and husband and a band of loyal friends) raising the standards of marmalade across the UK. The competition and the festival have been a huge success, proving, I'd say, that marmalade does have a place in every Briton's heart. It is tremendous fun - do go if you are in the area. All details here.

Of course I am sworn to secrecy as to the winners - they're announced at the festival on 1 March - but for a marmalade nut like myself, it was a fantastically reassuring experience. More than 2000 jars were entered (the awards only started in 2005, with just 50 entries), all different, all creative, all made with love and enthusiasm. Marmalade in decline? I don't think so.

I'll be back at F&M next week for their in-store Marmalade Fortnight, where customers can head for the Food Halls and taste some of the winners, as well as Fortnum's own marmalades. Toast and marmalade as you shop - it's got to be worth a trip to Piccadilly.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Let the Boiling Begin

Let the Boiling Begin

So, the World Marmalade Awards are upon us and the Sevilles are being boiled in preparation. I'm making a tiny taster jar for each batch so I can taste each one and send in the best candidate. I'm on Batch Three already and it's only 19 January - not bad, although we've eaten one jar already and given away two, so there's no time for slacking.

The good news for potential entrants in London is that Fortnum's - sponsors and judges of the awards - has upped its game and is offering a Marmalade Exchange as part of the Awards; if you take your entry into the store, they'll send it to Cumbria for you, AND give you a jar of Fortnum's marmalade in exchange. So you don't have to pay postage, and you're up by one jar of rather good marmalade. Almost too good to be true, but it is true - the only drawback is that you need to get your jars in to Piccadilly by 8th Feb. So get boiling.