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.

15 thoughts on “The Politics of Marmalade

  1. We enjoyed reading this blog, and have loved experiencing the wonderful cracking of caramel before eating the luscious and delicious oranges!

    We strongly recommend you make and stockpile your perfect Joey ormalade, before it’s too late.

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  2. Joe dear… “even the tiniest of issues, such as the availability of oranges, is testament to how very pervasive are even the minutiae.. ” is the very hell we are trying to leave.
    As quite an intelligent person (your typically Remainer words to me, gotcha) surely you see this?
    If not, see this – https://ageconsearch.umn.edu/bitstream/25604/1/cp060787.pdf
    Cheer up – the world is our orange!
    (I should add that I am an inveterate marmalade maker myself, and will send you my recipe for Evangelist’s Marmalade, and we can have a marmalade-off…! Eh?)

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  3. Dear Merrily, It is inevitable that over some matters we will have our differences. But, clearly, we have things in common; we share a love for marmalade making and for detail – I refer to the useful link you sent. Can we share recipes over a cuppa soon? Love, Joe

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  4. Letter received on my personal email address

    ‘Cher Joe !

    Non non ! tes confitures d’orange ne peuvent pas être les dernières ! Nous feront ensemble obstacle au brexit et nous te feront parvenir clandestinement les oranges de Séville, par un bateau du Guilvinec ou par avion en parachutant au-dessus de Londres des caisses d’oranges, ou des remparts de Séville on bombardera l’Angleterre d’oranges, ou tu viendras faire tes confitures à Tréguennec et je te les ramènerai dans le double fond du coffre de ma voiture.

    Courage les amis ! le Brexit ne passera pas par nous !

    Avec toute mon amitié

    Annie’

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    1. Chère Annie, Je ne suis pas optimiste. L’avenir est sombre. Peut-être en février 2020 puis-je venir à Treguennec pour y fabriquer la marmelade amère bretonne avec toi. Cela te convient?
      Amitié
      Joe

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  5. Letter received on personal email address

    Dear Joe
    I enjoyed this and look forward to enjoying Marrakesh oranges -thanks for the recipe. I’m surprised it has taken you so long to discover the wrinkle method for testing whether a marmalade (or jam) is set. I too love making marmalade, although I haven’t done so for a while. Lovely to catch a glimpse of the toddler Joe!
    Andrea

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  6. Dear Andrea, In the past I have used the wrinkle test but the temperature test always took priority. This time my thermometer was not used and it was the wrinkle test alone that determined when heating should stop and bottling begun. This issue is the priority given. Love, Joe

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  7. Dear Joe,

    A friend recently made marmalade from Seville oranges- so delicious and so much more delicious than non-Seville marmalade. By the way, I used to use the drop test when making toffee- the toffee would now break our teeth but it was delicious at the time.
    Love

    Robin

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  8. I had intended to comment on this when you first posted it, but the moment passed – perhaps because I was busy making marmalade?!

    It was when I was in Spain (of course) that I learned the art of marmalade making. Nothing like popping out the front door and collecting the oranges from the trees! My neighbours in the village didn’t use their bitter oranges – ‘naranjas locas’ (mad oranges) they called them, gravely telling me of the dire consequences of eating them – so there was always a plentiful supply.

    I favour the old fashioned, boil ’em whole, method which produces a deliciously bitter marmalade. And somehow I think it enhances that amazing citrusy smell which oozes round the whole of my home, sliding under the furniture, filling the corners and making the air sweet and heavy with orange-fragrance. Mmm. So I’d like to join the ‘marmalade off’ if and when it happens and put my produce up for scrutiny!

    But, like you, I am fearful for future, affordable imports in bitter orange season (it’s already bad enough having to pay for the fruit rather than having unlimited, free supplies). And I suppose I will have to get a visa to travel to visit former neighbours to get free produce (but I guess it would be illegal to travel back with caseloads …). Oh dear, the odds are stacked against our seasonal habit. I share your pessimism about having perhaps made the last batch.

    Incidentally, my setting-point test is holding a wooden spoon side-on above the ploutering panful. When the last drop just hangs from the spoon, it’s set. Never fails!

    Savour every marmaladey mouthful this year, Joe.

    J
    X

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    1. Dear Fruitbat, It’s never too late to comment. What a privelidged life you led in Spain! I am not sure if I dare cook the oranges whole; after twenty-odd years getting thus far, a change so major would probably be too great a step. Love, Joe

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