For lovers of oranges, the last few weeks have been a delight. Although oranges can be bought all year round, it is the fresh, Spanish oranges that arrive in our shops from mid-January to mid-February that are special. It is always a surprise that a winter fruit can look so inviting and provide such compelling flavours, and for a man with a lifelong love of oranges generally and marmalade in particular, the season has once again lived up to expectations. From the peel of the small, gnarled, knobbly and bitter-tasting Seville oranges, I have already made fifty pots of marmalade. Using its larger and altogether more photogenic ‘cousin’, I have made two caramel-topped, orange desserts.
The oranges for the dessert have a sweet juice, thin skins and firm flesh supported by a radiating network of soft fibres. The process is simple. One orange per person is peeled, then the stem and navel ends of each are cut off so that the orange is shaped like a barrel. Starting from one of the ‘barrel’s’ ends, each orange is finely sliced. The round slices are then dusted with cinnamon, sprinkled with essence of orange blossom, and layered on a dish to form a hillock. Stoned dates are placed around the base of the hillock and hot, caramelised sugar is poured over the mixture. Once the caramel covering has set hard – two hours in the fridge will do – the pudding is ready to be served. With its crackly caramel cover, this fresh-fruit, winter pudding always comes as a wonderful surprise, just as it did when we first met it in a Marrakesh restaurant around twenty years ago.
Now to the marmalade which has been a passion of mine for over seventy years. In wartime Liverpool when provisions were rationed, our family was permitted to buy just one jar of conserve per week. For us it was marmalade and when my father would set off to do the shopping my mother told how I, still a toddler, would ask that “Daddy goem fetchem Joey ormalade”. This was, apparently, one of my first formed sentences!
Despite the naval blockade, oranges somehow still arrived in the UK and while fresh fruit was a great rarity, marmalade, and, for children, concentrated orange juice, were part of our breakfast fare. My love for marmalade has not diminished, and over the last twenty years I have been making it myself.
My marmalade recipe has changed umpteen times. My first recipe was written by Isabella Beeton and published in 1861 in her ‘Book of Household Management’. Using it, however, the consistency of the marmalade often went wrong and, after a short dalliance with a second published recipe, I moved on to a set of hand-written instructions sent by Mike, a jam-making friend. My approach has been evolving ever since and only now do I feel that I have got it about right.
A recent key modification has been in the size and shape of the sliced peel. As a child I liked pieces that were chunky and these were given names; the smaller bits were called ‘Mummies’, the larger ones ‘Daddies’. The more ‘Daddies’ I had on my slice of toast, the better. I remained faithful to this image into adulthood, but this year the peel has been cut into much finer slices and finding a Mummy or a Daddy would be difficult.
A second and more fundamental change, has been in the way I assess when the marmalade mixture is ready for potting. Putting it in jars too early means it won’t set; too late and it will be sticky, possibly even tasting burnt. I used to rely heavily on temperature, stopping boiling the mixture as soon as it reached the traditional 105°C. This year I have switched to using the ‘wrinkle’ test as the end-point. A tiny sample of the boiling marmalade is dropped from the edge of the wooden stirring spoon on to a cold plate. If the droplet stays as a raised bead, and if the surface of the bead wrinkles when pushed from the side by a finger nail, the mixture will set nicely. As soon as the test is positive, boiling can stop and bottling begin. Relying on this new approach has made all the difference.
I fear that this year’s marmalade might be my last. In the bigger political picture, the availability of Spanish oranges is trivial. However Brexit might mean that importing the unique Seville oranges from a neighbour on the European mainland might not be easy. In fact, even more difficult than circumnavigating the U-boat blockades of the 1940s. The ramifications of Brexit are enormous and the fact that elements penetrate my thoughts on even the tiniest of issues, such as the availability of oranges, is testament to how very pervasive are even the minutiae of leaving the European Union.
For help with writing this blog, I would like to thank Sarah, Vivien and Rohan.
The illustration shows five Seville oranges.