If a sourdough starter kit was crucial to the first lockdown, pips, peel and pith took centre stage at the start of 2021. January coincides with the Seville orange season, which this year prompted many homebound hobbyists to take up swirling fruit and sugar on a fast boil.
Social media has bubbled with amateur chefs boiling Seville oranges to make marmalade. Little Women star Florence Pugh posted her recipe on Instagram, proclaiming that her grandmother makes the “best marmalade”. Elizabeth Hurley used Twitter to post a photograph of herself holding two jars of her homemade preserve. “Lockdown has turned me into a demented housewife: 47 jars of marmalade are nestling in my larder and another sack of Seville oranges await me,” the model and actress wrote.
Searches for “classic Seville orange marmalade” recipes on Waitrose increased by more than 1,000 per cent compared with last season, the UK supermarket says.
And chef Dan Lepard, patron of the World’s Original Marmalade Awards, the world’s biggest marmalade-making competition, is not surprised. “In this lockdown, we’re returning to homemade everything and getting excited about our personal growth opportunities, from trying something for the first time to starting second careers,” he says. “Marmalade is part of that.”
In Spain, producers have felt pressure to meet the heightened demand. “When it’s high season, we barely have time to sleep,” says José Gahona, export manager for his family business at the Ave María groves near Seville. Yet this year has been even crazier. Food delivery group Abel & Cole, which has been supplied by the Gahona family for the past decade, reports that its sales of Seville oranges have risen 250 per cent compared with the 2020 season.
The quintessential English preserve has evolved from a foreign delicacy and a different fruit altogether. “Marmalade” stems from the Portuguese marmelada, a quince-and-honey solid jelly that itself goes back to the ancient Greeks, Romans and Persians and is still enjoyed today. In the 16th century, Henry VIII received a gift of marmelada from Portugal. By the end of the 18th century, marmalade had become synonymous with citrus fruit, and bitter oranges in particular.
Orange marmalade was a staple on British breakfast tables during the reign of Queen Victoria and in the early 20th century. But the second world war and the growth of jam makers’ corporate muscle led to a decline in imports of Seville oranges.
Yet perhaps the winds of fortune are changing. Certainly, marmalade mania is not confined to the UK. The awards that Lepard judges attract entries from every continent — Zambia, Honduras and Kuwait were countries represented for the first time this year — while versions of the competition take place in Australia and Japan. It has even spawned a festival in Senegal.
“People are being much more inventive,” says Lepard. “Where we used to see a spoonful of whisky or Cointreau, people are now putting in gold, tobacco and anything they can find. There’s real appreciation of the flavour.”
Homemade Seville orange marmalade has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.
It was the only condiment my parents allowed on our toast at breakfast, but since I loved it I never rebelled. I still eat it every day . . . and also make it, cook with it and have judged competitions.
Marmalade-making season lasted a month in our house because my mother made it on an industrial scale — for us and for charities she supported. From an early age, I was cutting and squeezing oranges, weighing sugar and washing jars. The smell lingered for weeks.
Yet I participated with gusto. It helped that we lived in Paddington and I grew up reading about the bear, named after the London station, who kept a marmalade sandwich under his hat. I would hope to bump into him when we went to Portobello Road, one of his favourite haunts, so we’d be able to share marmalade tales.
By the time I was 16, I was making batches myself, following my mother’s recipe: almost 3lb of Sevilles, a couple of lemons (to add pectin to help with the setting), six pints of water and 6lb of sugar.
One of my failings as a father is that neither of my children likes marmalade. I put it down to us living in Indonesia when they were small, which meant the spread was never part of their breakfast DNA. The one time my wife made marmalade it caramelised. While it was delicious, the experience appears to have scarred her. Today, making marmalade constitutes “me time” more than “us time”.
But a friend, Jane Hasell-McCosh, shares my passion and has asked me twice to be a judge at the World’s Original Marmalade Awards, which she founded 16 years ago to raise money for a hospice. Judging alongside professional marmaladers is intimidating but I learnt a lot — not least that quality always shines through, even after one’s mouth has been numbed by scores of samey-samey samples.
The following year, I put my own prowess to the test and entered. I scored 18/20 — enough for a silver medal and an inner glow, though I was told I needed to work on softening my peel.
With more time on my hands this year, I’ve decided to be more adventurous, combining ingredients that represent my life — mace from Indonesia and honey from my mother’s farm in Cumbria. Striking the right balance has taken several experiments, the results of which range from absolutely yucky to totally yummy. The proof of the preserve will be in the judging.
John Aglionby is the FT assistant UK news editor
I learnt how to make marmalade with my mother and sister in the shadow of an old painting of the Andalusian countryside. The artwork came from my great-grandfather, who ran a successful business importing Seville oranges in the first half of the 20th century.
Today, marmalade-making is my winter pick-me-up, transporting me to sunny climes as the darkness outside tightens its grip. Sadly, I have not passed on this love to my children, who dislike marmalade and regard my annual ritual as quite deranged.
A batch takes five hours to make and most years I squeeze out three batches. This season, I made seven. I filled the time I would have spent on my four-hour daily commute experimenting with marmalade ideas. I added roasted almonds and rosewater, I made marmalade with vanilla, marmalade with ginger, dark marmalade, light marmalade, chunky and thin-sliced, I used more sugar, less sugar, I made marmalade jelly, marmalade ice cream, replaced the bitter oranges with lemons and clementines, and finally — my pièce de résistance — I concocted “Marmalade Carnivalesque”. Maybe, just maybe, this will be the recipe that brings my family to love marmalade as much as I do.
With a nod to Trinidad, the land of my birth, I like to turn up my calypso playlist, pour myself a bitters-and-lime “Bentley” cocktail and get stuck into swirling. This year, “Marmalade Carnivalesque” emerged after many hours over the boiling pan.
Sarah Provan is the FT’s deputy head of breaking news
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