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.