Thinking about marmalade

Thinking about marmalade and wondering whether we should make some come the Seville orange season next January or February – depending on when they come in the shops, I began to think about why my parents’ recipe  produced the best marmalade. Is it just a matter of taste or is there some Marmalade Standard by which it can be measured?

I looked for a definition of marmalade and this is what I’ve come across:

  • a soft substance with a sweet but slightly bitter taste, made by cooking fruit such as oranges with sugar to preserve it. It is eaten on bread, usually for breakfast….

That actually didn’t get me off to a good start – I take issue with ‘soft substance‘ – a pile of feathers could be a soft substance, and I don’t like ‘cooking fruit such as oranges with sugar to preserve it‘ – the point of marmalade isn’t to preserve bitter oranges, but to make marmalade. I have it on good authority from  Spanish friends that Seville  oranges are good for nothing and are left lying in the streets of the city as they are just a decorative item on the orange tree. I also have a big issue with it being eaten on bread – yes some people do or might, but marmalade  is generally and traditionally eaten on toast.

  • a jellylike preserve in which small pieces of fruit and fruit rind, as of oranges or lemons, are suspended.

This is more correct, but there is no mention of the bitterness which is characteristic of a true marmalade.

  • a preserve made from citrus fruit, especially bitter oranges.

I think this is a brief but accurate definition, as is this:

  • Marmalade is a food made from oranges, lemons, or grapefruit that is similar to jam. It is eaten on bread or toast at breakfast.

The mention of breakfast is important, so again, brief but accurate; however Wikipedia gives what  might be considered the best definition and explanation:

  • Marmalade generally refers to a fruit preserve made from the juice and peel of citrus fruits boiled with sugar and water. It can be produced from  kumquats,  lemons,  limes,  grapefruits, mandarins, sweet oranges, bergamots, and other citrus fruits, or any  combination of them.
    For many decades now, the preferred citrus fruit for marmalade production in Britain has been the Spanish Seville orange, Citrus aurantium var. aurantium, prized for its high pectin content, which “gives a good set” – that is, it readily attains the thick consistency expected of marmalade. The peel imparts a lively bitter taste to the marmalade.
    The term “marmalade” is not precise, universal, nor definitive, but unless otherwise stated, marmalade is generally distinguished from jam by its fruit peel. However, it also may be distinguished from jam by the choice of fruit. Historically, the term was more often used in senses other than just citrus conserves

So having compared definitions… how about marmalade, and why do I think my parents’ recipe is the best? I should say to begin with, that although people do make marmalade with other fruit, I really only consider Seville orange marmalade as the true thing.  Without the bitterness, other fruit preserves are just that – preserves or jams.

  • smell/aroma – as soon as you open the jar the smell should bring joy to your nostrils, promising a delight to come… orange, toffee, only a hint of sweetness, acidity
  • appearance – the gel surrounding the shreds of peel should be transparent and clear, no cloudiness, no little blobs of fruit, and it should be a dark not bright orange, almost the colour of treacle toffee; it should glisten and shine. The shreds do not need to be a uniform shape or size but they should not be too thick, or in cubes, nor should they be so wafer thin that they are barely there and they should be distributed equally throughout the jar, neither lurking at the bottom, nor trying to escape out of the top
  • texture – the gel should be soft but hold its shape to an extent, it shouldn’t be liquid, it shouldn’t be stiff, it shouldn’t be a paste; the slivers of peel should be chunky but tender, although they should still retain an element of ‘bite’ – they should still be firm but not chewy
  • taste – there must be orange – it is a marmalade after all. There must be a pleasing bitterness, tempered by a sweetness but not too sweet. There should be a depth of flavour – the taste should have length as well as immediate intensity; there should also be a roundness – thin flavoured marmalade is just wrong. The flavour should be strong and distinct… and yes, as Wikipedia describes it ‘lively’
  • spreadability – yes, of course it should spread!

Does that sound very pompous? I hope not!

I have dear friends who often give me a jar of their marmalade, and I’m very grateful and enjoy having it on toast… but it’s just not the same as that made by the recipe. Some friends add whisky, or ginger, which I quite like, but then it becomes something different.

So what is the secret of the recipe… partly the way it is made, but also the addition of black treacle…. so, take your usual recipe, Seville oranges, a couple of lemons, sugar and also black treacle:

… and here is the method:

The method

  • it is such a chore cutting, slicing, squeezing, preparing the oranges… so put all the fruit in a pan, cover with enough water and boil until soft.
  • cut the cooked fruit in half when cool and scoop the soft flesh out of the shells of the skin. Easy.
  • then slice the peel as finely or as chunkily as you prefer
  • put all the flesh into a muslin and squeeze all the  pectin rich juices from it.
  • continue as with your recipe, but add black treacle
  • bottle when ready, admire your work, sample and store.
  • favoured friends may be lucky to receive a sample!
  • this will keep for several years… I am currently enjoying some 2012 vintage

PS – the different types of preserves…

  • jams – small or chopped or mashed fruit and sugar
  • jellies – fruit and sugar cooked and strained so there are no bits
  • preserves – whole fruit or large pieces and sugar
  • conserves – high fruit content, often with added dried fruit, nuts, etc, similar consistency to jam
  • marmalades – mixed citrus fruit and often with chopped or sliced peel, and sugar
  • fruit butters – puréed cooked fruit and less sugar, soft and spreadable – they don’t keep well so have to be eaten quickly
  • curds/cheeses –  fruit, sugar, butter and eggs, and as with butters, and have to be eaten quickly


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