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

Monday, 19 January 2015

Marmalade Secrets

Marmalade Secrets

So, that didn't work very well.

I tried this recipe, by a very respectable food writer, but I had a sense of deja-vu as I watched the pot boil... and boil... and boil... but not set. It was how my marmalade went the first few times I made it – lots of boiling, slow to set and a rather syrupy result.

So what went wrong? I am reluctant to blame the recipe, as it may have been something I did (like workmen not blaming their tools, it's best not to blame someone else's recipe). Although I did notice that it doesn't have any lemons in it, which is unusual – lemons are high in pectin, and every other recipe I've used does include lemon juice or pips or both. So that might have helped.

But it might also be the fault of the oranges. I made my first batch with lovely, petite, smooth-skinned oranges from my local wholefood shop, Earth. But the second batch was made with oranges from Sainsbury's, which were very much the Ugly Sisters to my original oranges. See?

The ones on the left are from the supermarket; the elegant little orange on the right is from Ave Maria, which (I now discover) is the place to buy your Sevilles, as it is a renowned organic farm selling very high-quality oranges. So I feel very fortunate that they've found their way to Kentish Town. The peel on the Sainsbury's oranges was pale orange with green patches, and so thick and lumpy that, as I was slicing it tonight for Batch 3, I discarded some of it, as it was spoiling the overall look. I'm beginning to think that they weren't actually ripe, which would mean not enough pectin. Hmm.

However, despite blaming the oranges, I've decided that any recipe worth its salt requires that the pips be soaked first rather than cooked first, as that's what seems to work – so I'm sticking to that kind of recipe from now on.

As usual, the original question – what's wrong with my marmalade? – has led me down several interesting paths. After writing Tuesday's post, I ended up buying a biography of Constance Spry; this time, I found an account of a visit to the Ave Maria farm and watched a video on the science of making marmalade, including some lovely pictures of Seville's orange trees. Both of these were on the website of marmalade expert Vivien Lloyd and are worth a few minutes of your time as you wait for your marmalade to boil. And while Seville's street oranges may not be the finest raw ingredients, I loved the image of abundant oranges growing on every corner, just waiting to be marmaladed.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Dan Lepard's Marvellous Marmalade

Dan Lepard's Marvellous Marmalade

Well, that was easy. I made this recipe a couple of days ago and it is just The Business; it tastes superb, it set beautifully and, despite my anticipated laziness, it's no more of a faff than my usual recipe. I could see it was jellifying even while I was pouring the ingredients together. It didn't even have to reach the required 105C (unless my thermometer wasn't working) – it was about 103C but already setting like mad after less than 15 minutes' boiling.

The end result (labels designed by 6-year-old Jack)

In fact, this was such a resounding success that that I'm tempted to call off my intended search and declare this the winner. But for the sake of thoroughness, I'll try a few more methods, just to see what happens.

I'm also going to add Constance Spry to my testing list. G was making her Potage Palestine for supper, so I was leafing through her epic cookbook while I waited for my food, and found two marmalade recipes, both of which, intriguingly, seem to have been provided by men: 'Orange Marmalade (Mr Ringrose's)' and 'Orange Marmalade (Colonel Gore's)'.

It shows how the writing of cookbooks has changed; today there would be a long and effusive explanation of who these men were and how she came by their recipes; but here, nothing, which is far more fascinating. I decided to investigate and became even more fascinated;  and ended up ordering her biography, promisingly entitled The Surprising Life of Constance Spry, which may or may not furnish an explanation. I will report back.

Monday, 12 January 2015

January! At Last!

January! At Last!

Hooray! January is here, the Sevilles are in and at last I can refill the pantry with marmalade. We ran out in late October and have been surviving on shop-bought marmalade ever since, which is rather painful for a marmalade addict like myself. Even the good stuff is just too sweet and bland. No bitterness, no bite, no jarringly acid edge. It's just not bracing enough.

After a disappointing score (15/10, ahem, shows what I know) at the World Marmalade Awards for last year's efforts, I must pull up my socks and find a more reliable recipe. I like the flavour of mine, very sharp and rich and intense, but it rarely sets properly. By the time I get halfway through the jar, I can pretty much pour it on to my toast. So after a bit of research, I've decided to test a couple of recipes that Google seems to think are popular: one by Dan Lepard and another by Thane Prince, both trustworthy names but with slightly different ingredients and methods.

Just for good measure, I'm also going to try an Aga recipe by Tamasin Day-Lewis (I don't have an Aga, but my friends Tim and Tor do, so I shall test it there and leave some behind as payment. Might have to leave several jars, as the thing costs a fortune to run, like sending ten-pound notes straight up the flue, Tim says).

So - first off is this recipe from Dan Lepard, who I met at the Marmalade Awards last year; he strikes me as a very painstaking sort of person when it comes to perfecting a recipe, and he is very keen on his marmalade, so I am sure it's going to work. However, his method requires you to juice the oranges and slice up the peel first, rather than boil them whole and cut them up when they're nice and soft, as I usually do; so as I'm very lazy, it may not be for me. But it also requires you to measure the liquid halfway through and match it to the weight of oranges, which is what many of the experts seem to do. So that may be the trick. We'll see.

John Aglionby and Dan Lepard judging artisan marmalades
at the 2014 World Marmalade Awards

P.S. Since the last annual marmalade fest, I've also produced another baby, who has just started to eat proper food. Having failed to instil a love of marmalade into my 7-year-old son (he is a honey-and-peanut-butter man), I'm going to get it right this time. So despite generally avoiding sugar and citrus, I did give her a tiny dab of marmalade yesterday. She licked at it and gave me a bit of a puzzled look. And then she stuck her tongue out for more. Yay! (If any health visitors are reading this, yes I know, but it was just a lick, the rest is all mashed avocado and organic yogurt.)