19 January, 2007

January recipe: Seville orange marmalade

Marmalade attracts myths. According to a Radio 4 documentary last year, the growers who ship Seville oranges to Britain by the ton every January are baffled as to what the British can possibly want with all these oranges that are too bitter to eat, and are convinced that they are used in a secret process for manufacturing gunpowder.

Another oft-quoted myth is that marmalade was invented by a French court cook trying to produce something to tempt the palate of the young Mary Queen of Scots during one of her childhood illnesses, and derives from the French “Marie est malade”. Antonia Fraser dismisses this charming story as a fable in her biography of Mary, saying that the word was in existence much earlier and is derived from the Portuguese word for quince, ‘marmelos’. The Concise Oxford Dictionary agrees with her, as does Wikipedia. And apparently Samuel Pepys’s wife was making Marmelat of Quince in 1663.

At some point (and I haven’t tried to find out when), the bitter quince was replaced by bitter Seville oranges, and Seville marmalade has graced British breakfast tables ever since. The story goes that Seville marmalade was invented by a Dundee grocer’s wife, Janet Keillor, in 1797. A storm-battered ship took refuge in Dundee harbour, and its captain was eager to sell his perishable cargo of oranges for whatever price he could get before they decayed. Ever one for a bargain, a canny local grocer named James Keillor bought the lot at a knock-down price, reckoning that he’d have no difficulty selling cheap oranges in Dundee in the middle of winter. Unfortunately, when his wife unpacked the first crate it turned out that he wasn’t quite as canny as he thought. He’d forgotten to check what variety the oranges were, and they were Seville oranges, famously inedible (try eating one, and you will see what I mean).

But Janet was a true Scots lass and not about to see good money go to waste. Undaunted, she decided to turn the unsaleable oranges into marmalade. The crestfallen James was despatched back to the harbour to buy a shipload of sugar, while Janet rounded up all her female acquaintance and set them to work. Marmalade comes in two basic varieties, the Silver Shred type (elegant slivers of citrus zest suspended in a transparent gel) that requires painstaking removal of the pith, and the thick-cut type that bungs in the entire fruit, pith and all, minus only the pips. Even with the entire membership of the Dundee chapter of the Women's Institute on hand, processing a shipload of oranges would be a tall order, so Janet sensibly chose a thick-cut recipe to minimise the work. The resulting marmalade was sold through their grocery, found its way to London, became a resounding success, and Keiller’s* Dundee Marmalade has been made ever since.

This delightful tale is just as much a myth as the Mary Queen of Scots connection (see Wikipedia for the small grain of truth in it), but never mind. I always think of Janet Keillor, mythical or not, when I’m surrounded by chopped oranges, sugar, jars and bubbling pans in the middle weekend of January, and reflect that at least I haven’t got a whole shipload to do! Here’s the recipe:

Thick-cut Seville orange marmalade

1 lb (approx 0.5 kg) Seville oranges
1 lemon
2 lb (approx 1 kg) sugar
2 pints water

Slice the oranges and cut each slice into chunks of the size you would be happy to find on your toast in the morning, removing the pips as you go. (Removing the pips is fiddly so a food processor doesn’t speed this step up much, even if you've got one. I recommend you find something to listen to on the radio or a CD and turn it on before you start).

Do the same with the lemon.

Tie the pips into muslin bags. It doesn't have to be muslin; I sometimes use pieces of old cotton sheet or cotton handkerchief. The key requirements are: cotton or linen cloth (synthetics may not react well to the high temperatures); white or cream (some dyes are soluble, and you probably don’t want psychedelic colours); clean. I use pieces about 3-4 inches square, heap the pips in the middle, and tie the diagonally opposite corners together in pairs to make a Dick Whittington-style bundle.

Put the chopped fruit, the water and the bags of pips into a large bowl and stand overnight.

Next morning, put the contents of the bowl in a large saucepan, bring to the boil, and simmer gently until the peel is soft and the volume is about halved (approx. 1 to 1.5 hours).

Add the sugar and a small piece of butter to the pan.

Bring to the boil, and boil vigorously for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. (Don’t lean over the pan, and keep any children out of the way. It may spit and I swear that boiling marmalade was the inspiration for napalm).

Test for set by dropping a teaspoon of the marmalade mix onto a cold plate.** It will form a pool (if it forms a bead, your marmalade is a little over-cooked – take it off the heat immediately and go to the next step). Let the pool cool down (30 seconds or so), and prod it with your finger. If the surface doesn’t wrinkle, boil the marmalade for 2 minutes more and test again. If the surface wrinkles, the marmalade is done. Take it off the heat.

Fish out the bags of pips and discard them.

Pour into clean jars (the easiest way to do this is to pour the marmalade into a large heatproof jug, then use the jug to fill the jars. I recommend standing the jars on newspaper to make it easier to clean up any spills).

Cover the jars immediately. I use cling film and then a screw-top lid, but you can use paraffin wax, waxed paper, or whatever other method you choose. The important thing is to get an airtight seal while the marmalade is still hot. It’s hot enough to be effectively sterile when it’s just finished cooking, so if you seal it at that stage it will stay sterile and you can expect it to keep for years. If you let it cool down before you seal it, though, there’s a chance that mould spores will have floated in and the marmalade may spoil. (Very few bacteria can survive the high sugar concentration, but moulds are more resistant).

Let the jars cool, label them, and store in a cupboard until needed. It doesn’t need to mature, so you can start eating it the following morning, and it will keep for three years or more (as I know from having once found a forgotten jar at the back of a cupboard).

This quantity should make about four jars of marmalade. Seville oranges are typically available (in Britain; no idea about the rest of the world) during the last three weeks of January.

* Don’t ask me why there are two different spellings.

** If you have a sugar thermometer, I am told that it is useful in finding the setting point. I don’t own one, so I use this old-fashioned method of testing for set.


Bernita said...

Thank you, Carla.
I always laborously hand- slice the rind in strips. On the other hand, I use pectin for the set and am lazy that way.

Susan Higginbotham said...

Great stories!

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Carla, I always buy mine I'm afraid as I only get through 2 jars a year maximum, so it's not worth making. However when a 'toast and marmalade moment' strikes, nothing else will do!
I have an excellent book 'Traditional foods of Britain: an inventory' by Laura Mason and Catherine Brown. It lists all the truly native homegrown produce and was done as a part of the EU initiative to safeguard local produce. Of Dundee Marmalade it has the background information that nearly the entire crop of Spanish Seville oranges comes to Britain to be turned into marmalade. Also 'Pots of marmalade have followed the British around the world for at least a century. In the early 1900s the Empress of Russia and the Queen of Greece, grand daughters of Queen Victoria had supplies sent regularly from Wilkins of Tiptree. The firm of Frank Cooper of Oxford still has a tin which was taken on Scott's expedition to the North Pole in 1911.
Marmalade made its first appearance in Scotland and England in wooden boxes as marmelos, a sugary confection made from quinces. First refs to marmalada are in port records at the end of the 15thC. There's a ref to what sounds like a close ancestor of modern marmalade circa mid 17thC in the writings of Bishop Richard Pocoke who says he had a jelly of 'preserved orange peel' for spreading on toast. There's also a recipe from 1755 'to make a marmalade of oranges.' which is close enough to our modern variety.

Kathryn Warner said...

That sounds like such a lovely recipe I really wish I liked marmalade. ;) Unfortunately, I've never been able to eat it - it's one of the few things I can't bear the taste of.

Carla said...

Bernita - I never got the hang of pectin, I'm afraid. I think I tried once and decided it was too complicated.

Susan - they are, aren't they? I'm sure that's why they're so persistent, like the best urban myths :-)

Elizabeth - that sounds a fascinating book, thanks for expanding on the (true) history of marmalade. Bishop Richard's description does sound like the current product, doesn't it? Did he actually say 'toast', or was it a more generic term for bread, do you know? I've no idea how long toast has been around.... For things I only use in small quantities (like redcurrant and crabapple jelly), I find it easier to make my own rather than buy, as I can store it in small jars that don't go off before they get used up.

Alianore - I'm the same about tea. Fortunately, as far as I know it's not a statutory obligation to like the national stereotype foods :-)
If it's specifically the bitter taste of Seville oranges you don't like, the recipe works equally well with ordinary sweet eating oranges, when it comes out a bit like the packets of confiture d'orange you occasionally get at breakfast in French hotels. It still has the slight bitterness from the pith, though, so if that's the bit you don't like, best to give it a miss. If you fancy trying your hand at preserves, I'll probably post recipes for strawberry or raspberry or blackcurrant or blackberry jam in the summer, when they come into season and remind me :-)

Kathryn Warner said...

I don't drink tea, either. (Except Earl Grey, once in a blue moon.) All the Germans I know think I'm a total failure as a British person.;)

Thanks for suggesting some alternatives, but I'm afraid it's marmalade in general I don't like. I rememer spitting it out as a child because it "had nasty bits in it", and today even the kind without "bits" is tainted by association. ;)

But raspberry jam...now you're talking!

Carla said...

Alianore - It's a good thing there isn't a Committee for Un-British Behaviour, isn't it? Imagine being hauled up in front of it:

"Um, well, yes, your honour, it's true that I don't drink tea and don't know the first thing about football, but I do talk about the weather a lot, does that count in my favour?"

Kathryn Warner said...

I have a feeling I'd get into trouble with that committee. ;) I can imagine being denounced for my abject failure to enjoy tea and marmalade, being dragged into front of it, and shouting "But I understand the rules of cricket! I like Coronation Street! I own several umbrellas! I'm really, really British, honestly!" :-)

Carla said...

Alianore - it's absurd, isn't it? Yet you sometimes hear politicians and commentators talking as if they thought the Committee should really exist.... Scary.