Marmalade: A Very British Obsession

Captain Scott took jars to the Antarctic with him, and Edmund Hillary took one up Everest. Marmalade is part of the British national myth. Livvy Potts wants to know why.

Olivia Potts | Longreads | July 2020 | 15 minutes (4,161 words)

The dark wood-panelled dining room is quiet, heavy with concentration. Around the room, six pairs of judges sit at tables crowded with glass jars. As the light catches the jars they glow amber, saffron, primrose. The only real sounds are the murmurs as the pairs of judges consult, and the regular pop! of sterilized jars as they open. Occasionally, there is the tap of a pen against glass, signifying that a gold medal has been awarded, followed by quiet applause or cheers depending on how sugar-drunk the judges are.

This is the judging room of the World’s Original Marmalade Awards, an annual event in Penrith, England, in the English Lake District. I’m here because I’m obsessed with marmalade. Not with making or eating it — although I enjoy both — but the enigma it represents. I suppose I’m obsessed with those obsessed with it: what is the appeal? Marmalade is made from a sour, bitter fruit that doesn’t grow in the UK; a fruit that requires days of preparation to render remotely edible. And yet, marmalade holds a central role in British life and British culture. It appears in the diaries of Samuel Pepys; James Bond and Paddington Bear eat it. Officers that served in British wars received jars of marmalade to remind them of their home country. Captain Scott took jars to the Antarctic with him, and Edmund Hillary took one up Everest. Marmalade is part of our national myth. I want to know why.

***

Marmalade in Britain is overwhelmingly made from citrus aurantium, the bitter orange grown in the Spanish city of Seville. This city produces over 4 million kilos of the orange a year, almost entirely for export to Britain for the marmalade market. How on earth did that happen?

James Bond and Paddington Bear eat it. Officers that served in British wars received jars of marmalade to remind them of their home country. Captain Scott took jars to the Antarctic with him, and Edmund Hillary took one up Everest. Marmalade is part of our national myth. I want to know why.

Some would have you believe that marmalade was born in a vacuum. That, like Post-it notes or penicillin, it was invented all of a sudden, brought about by a confluence of unlikely factors. The story goes like this: it was a dark and stormy night. The rain fell in torrents, and a Spanish cargo ship was forced to take an unscheduled dock in Dundee, though it could as well have been anywhere; any port in a storm. Its cargo: oranges. A Dundee grocer, James Keiller, rashly buys up the whole load of them. He quickly discovers these oranges aren’t sweet and fleshy, but face-puckering sour and bitter, more pip than fruit. His mother, Janet, in an attempt to produce something, boils them up with tons of sugar. And so, marmalade was born.

The truth, I’m afraid, is rather more prosaic. We know that Seville orange marmalade in Britain predates this charming tale: there are British recipes for conserves of Seville oranges as far back as the 1587 A Book of Cookrye, and a marmalade very much like the one we eat today appears in a recipe book by Eliza Cholmondeley published around 1677. The Keiller family probably were the first to produce Seville orange marmalade on a commercial scale, but the Spanish ship story was and is just good PR. It is likely, according to C. Anne Wilson’s The Book of Marmalade, that the cargo ship would only have been carrying large quantities of Seville oranges because there was a ready market for them in Scotland, and that Janet Keiller would not have needed to invent a recipe for the orange marmalade, as many were in circulation by that point in England and Scotland. The expansion of the railways came at just the right time for the Keillers, and when Queen Victoria took a shine to the stuff, it quickly became fashionable in London. Once commercial production was underway, marmalade became a celebrated British export, perfect for overseas trade, able to travel long distances preserved by its sugar content, and capable of withstanding extremes of temperature.

In any event, marmalade was also made with other things long before it was made with the Seville orange. Early marmalades were often made from quince, and closely resembled what we now call membrillo: a thick paste that could be moulded and would hold its shape. A recipe from 1587 reads “stir it till it be thick or stiff that your stick will stand upright of itself.” Like membrillo, this marmalade was eaten after dinner, alongside sweetmeats, and as a digestion aid (one thing the Scottish did do in the nineteenth century was move marmalade from dinner to the breakfast table). It was a luxury item, sometimes flavored with prized ambergris, rose, and musk. It was given as gifts as a show of generosity and riches: Henry VIII received “one box of marmalade” from Hull of Exeter in 1524.

Quinces also gave marmalade its name: the world comes from the Portuguese name for the fruit, marmelo. Indeed, early port records tell us that marmalade first arrived in the UK from Portugal, though our appetite for the stuff meant it was soon coming from Spain and Italy too. It didn’t take long for English travellers to discover the recipe — a happy occurrence, since quinces grow very well on our temperate isle. We were, for a short time at least, an independent marmalade-making nation, until we got a taste for the foreign bitter orange.


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Only in English does marmalade connote a citrus-based preserve containing peel. In Greek (marmelada), French (marmalade), and Italian (marmellata), the word just means “jam,” with the fruit added afterward to distinguish. Thus marmellata di arance is orange jam: sweet, pulpy. Only marmellata di arance amare is what the English think of as marmalade. And it’s not just Romance languages: marmelad in Swedish, Marmelade in German, and marmelade in Danish, all generic terms for any fruit cooked in sugar. The British clearly think of marmalade differently from the rest of the world.

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There are many ways to make marmalade. Some boil the fruit whole; others prefer to cut the peel first. The merits of pressure-cooking are fiercely debated. But broadly speaking, marmalade is made by separating the citrus fruit into its different components — pips, peel, pith, juice — and boiling, before adding sugar and boiling again. Generally, the pith, pips, and flesh are tied up in a muslin bag. The peel is sliced into equal sized strips or chips. The muslin bag and peel are left to soak overnight in the water. The following day, the peel is cooked until tender. Sugar is added, along with any reserved juice, and heated gently until it dissolves, before the heat is ratcheted up to bring the mixture to a rolling boil. In 10-15 minutes, the mixture should have reached 105°C/220°F — jam temperature — meaning that it will set once cool. If you make it with Seville oranges, it’s something of a nose-to-tail preserve: the pips and the pith contain enough natural pectin, a gelling agent, to set the marmalade without additional ingredients. Nothing is wasted. In theory, it’s a straightforward process; in practice it is riddled with possible unforced errors. You can overboil it, underboil it, add too much acid, add too little acid; you can burn the syrup in the same batch you undercook the peel. You can pot too hot, you can pot too cool. Over the years, my husband, Sam, has encountered every one of them.

It was Sam who properly brought marmalade into my life. He was late for one of our early dates because he was waiting for his marmalade to set. He arrived, clutching a sticky, still-warm jar of Seville orange marmalade, in lieu of flowers. Back then, I didn’t even really eat marmalade. I certainly would never have countenanced making my own. Why would anyone bother? Was he aware that you can buy it in the supermarket? I was a criminal barrister, and the point in my life where I would ditch criminal law in favor of retraining in pâtisserie was still years in the future.

It was Sam who properly brought marmalade into my life. He was late for one of our early dates because he was waiting for his marmalade to set.

But Sam came from a long line of marmalade lovers and marmalade makers. In marmalade season —  in the UK, Seville oranges are only available for a few brief weeks from the end of December to mid-February — it’s all his family talks about, with long WhatsApp threads devoted to techniques, yields, sets. Sam was a good cook, but not an especially enthusiastic one: he cooked simple, functional meals. But marmalade was different. Marmalade making was, for him, non-negotiable. Even if we had shelves packed full of the previous years’ labors, when January rolled around, more must be made.

(It’s not just Sam and his family who are fanatics. So devoted are the marmalade makers of the UK that it’s possible to buy canned, prepared Seville orange peel and pulp, “Ma Made,” the marmalade equivalent of a cake mix box — just in case you get that marmalade-making hankering outside of season.)

For the first few years of our relationship, this was something I simply endured. Love the man, love his marmalade. As I got into cooking, I tried to make my own a few times, with varying success, but never quite caught the bug. (Besides which, we had an awful lot to get through. Even a small batch is a lot of marmalade for two people.) It all seemed so unpredictable; some years, whole batches had to be reboiled as Sam muttered darkly about it being a “low-pectin year.”

Once you’re hooked, of course, this is all part of the appeal. Lucy Deedes is a veteran of both the homemade and artisan classes of the World’s Original Marmalade Awards, scoring three gold medals in the artisan. “You have to get things right at the right time. I’ve never made jam because it’s not much of a challenge. Marmalade only has three ingredients, but every batch is different, and sometimes it just doesn’t turn out.”

In other words: the tricky, maddening nature of marmalade is precisely why people love making it. It’s a bit like sourdough: if you’re going to get into it, you have to really get into it. Even then, failure lurks around every corner —  but so does the possibility of improvement. That’s irresistible to a certain sort of person; marmalade attracts the obsessive. Helena Atlee, author of The Land Where Lemons Grow puts it more bluntly. “Marmalade attracts bigots. They believe in one true product made from the sour oranges the British call Sevilles, and coming most probably from a steamy Scottish kitchen in Dundee.”

For the first few years of our relationship, this was something I simply endured. Love the man, love his marmalade.

I want to meet some of these obsessives, and understand the hold that marmalade has over so many. And I think I know where to find them: the World’s Original Marmalade Awards.

***

I arrived at Dalemain, where the awards are held, against the odds, having battled Storm Ciara to make it to the flooded and snowbound Lake District. At that point, I was fairly sure that extreme weather conditions would be the biggest challenge the awards would face this year. How much February Olivia had to learn. I first spoke to Jane Hasell-McCosh, who is the founder of the awards over the phone, asking if I could interview her and perhaps a couple of the judges for this piece. ‘“We can do one better than that,” she told me. “Would you like to help us judge?”

I agreed on the spot, but afterward, I began to worry that I didn’t know enough about marmalade for the gig. Thanks to Sam, I eat it far more than I used to, and would tend to choose it over jam. But is that enough? Well, it was too late for that. On my way up to the judging, I braced myself for the marmalade obsessives of which Helena Atlee writes — if not bigots, then at least fundamentalists. I was ready to be told there is only one true way to make and enjoy marmalade, and that any deviation from it is an aberration and, possibly, a perversion.

Dalemain is astonishing. The main frontage is Georgian, built in 1744, with the old hall dating far further back to the 12th century. It has been in the family for over 300 years. Although from the outside the house looks like a National Trust property, when you step inside you immediately realize it is a family home. Laundry hangs in the huge stone kitchen, dogs weave between legs, and back copies of Vogue spill out from under a table in the hallway. On the walls, portraits of distant ancestors mingle with recent family photos. In one of the guest rooms, a bed gifted by Queen Anne still resides. (The mattress, I am told, has been changed.)

The awards began as a one-off. Fifteen years ago, rural Britain was still struggling after being decimated four years earlier by the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, a highly infectious disease which affects cows and other cloven-footed animals, and generally requires widespread culling of livestock. Jane wanted to do something to bring her local community together, something cheering. There was never any plan for it to become a regular event.

The fact that it did is perhaps down to Jane’s formidable organizational nouse, though I believe her when she tells me how much the growth and success of the event took her by surprise. That first year, around 60 jars were received, almost exclusively from local competitors. This year, there are more than 3,000 entrants from 40 countries around the world, plus spin-off festivals in Japan and Australia. During the time I spent at Dalemain, two separate production companies were filming.

After 15 years, judging has been honed to a fine art. The way it works is this: the marmalades are tasted on plastic spoons (never double-dipped), without the interference of bread, oatcakes or any other vehicle. Bath Oliver biscuits (a savory cracker) are on the table as a palate cleanser. Each entry has a scorecard and is judged on its appearance, texture and flavor, with points available for lack of smudges on the jar, color, brightness, peel distribution, jar filled to the top, balance of jelly to peel, set, size of peel, texture of peel, balance of flavors, balance of acidity, length of finish, and “overall harmony.” The marmalades can receive a commended, a bronze, a silver, a gold, or nothing at all. Those which have scored top marks are then re-judged: there is a Best in Show awarded to the top homemade marmalade, and a “Double Gold” award given to a handful of the very best across the categories. The winner of the best homemade marmalade is sold in the luxury London department store, Fortnum & Mason.

After a short briefing, and armed with our spoons, we were ready to start judging.

There are more categories than you could shake a stick at: in the homemade category, as well as the standard Seville orange (which have two sub-categories), dark and chunky marmalade and “other citrus,” there are categories for children, first-timers, men, gardeners (where the predominant ingredient beyond the citrus was grown by the competitor), octogenarians, and campanologists (bell-ringers). Special categories of former years have included everything from peers, political & clergy, to hairdressers.

The range is mind-boggling: a sweet potato and coffee marmalade from Taiwan sat alongside a lime glitter marmalade, which looked like something a teenage girl would daub on her eyelids. A coconut and chocolate marmalade elicited groans when it was plucked from a crate, followed by raised eyebrows and “not bad!”s once actually tasted. I tasted fruits I’ve never even heard of, let alone tried: daidai (the Japanese equivalent of the Seville orange, bitter, pocked, and pithy), tachibana (a wild mandarin found in Southern Taiwan and Japan), kawachi bankan (a Japanese pomelo), and tangelo (a sweet tangy orange that tastes, to me at least, like jelly beans).

It is no coincidence that some of the most striking and delicious citrus fruits previously unknown to me come from Japan, and that the Japanese tend to enjoy particular success at the awards. Marmalade is big news in Japan, despite the absence of Seville oranges. Two years ago, Seiko and Yoriko Ninomiya, Japanese marmalade makers, received a double-gold award for their marmalade, a yuzu and ginger and, suspended in the jelly, tiny yuzu peel stars. They came to marmalade as a hobby after they retired from careers in the airline industry. They have been involved in the inaugural Japanese Marmalade Awards, which are held at Yawatahama, where the citrus groves tumble down the hills to the ocean. This year, they have come to the Lake District to help judge the World awards.

I was told by more seasoned judges that when I tasted a full mark, gold marmalade, I would know immediately. And they were right. I was the first person to try one of the marmalades that ultimately won the Double Gold International Marmalade award in the artisan category, and it was stop-you-in-your-tracks good. It too was a Japanese marmalade, made from the endangered tachibana fruit, which tastes like a Seville orange crossed with a mandarin — but it’s not just the flavor that set it apart. This was a reduced sugar marmalade, which often results in a loose, syrupy set, but here was a set so perfect that many full-sugar marmalades fail to achieve; crystal clear, wibbly jelly; identical, perfectly cooked peel was suspended throughout the jar. How could a marmalade be so clever? I wanted to ring everyone I know and tell them about this stuff.

…here was a set so perfect that many full-sugar marmalades fail to achieve; crystal clear, wibbly jelly; identical, perfectly cooked peel was suspended throughout the jar. How could a marmalade be so clever?

***

It’s hard to comprehend when you’re sitting in the stone kitchen of Dalemain, but marmalade’s appeal is not what it once was. Thane Prince, a British cookery writer, preserves specialist and judge of The Big Allotment Challenge, tells me that British tastes and customs have moved on. “It’s old-fashioned. I think the appeal was that it was exotic. A luxury product, and these things always have caché. But now it’s just old-fashioned. And people don’t have breakfast in the same way.” During the height of marmalade’s popularity, a cooked “Full English” breakfast, accompanied by toast and marmalade was standard. But Britain’s marmalade consumption has been in decline since the 1960s. Perhaps establishing marmalade as a breakfast food was actually sealing its fate. We have less time for breakfast now; we pick something up on the go, from a coffee shop. More and more of us avoid sugar, or carbs in general. None of this bodes well for marmalade’s future.

Its bitterness probably doesn’t help, either. We are programmed to dislike bitterness, as Jennifer McLagan explains in her book Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor. In nature, bitterness often suggests something poisonous, which is why babies screw up their faces at bitter tastes. As we age, we lose taste buds, and learn to like bitter things: coffee, cigarettes, Campari, dark chocolate. But each is a struggle. And with marmalade, many of us seemingly never get off the ground, plumping instead for jam, or peanut butter. It is certainly true that peanut butter and chocolate spread are gaining ground in the share of the spreads market, where marmalade resides. Marmalade sales were in steady decline from 2013.

Even in decline, though, marmalade has sway in the supermarkets because of its status as a basket item: one that shoppers use to judge where to shop. As such, it is a common loss leader, meaning retailers sell it at a rock-bottom price to get people through their doors. At the time of writing, a one-pound jar of marmalade can be had for as little as 27p (34¢), an impossible price on which to make a profit.

But, the tide may be turning. The 2017 release of Paddington 2 — which involved a set piece showing Paddington making marmalade in prison — increased marmalade sales by 3 percent in the UK after a steady four-year decline, according to supermarket data collected by research firm Kantar. It’s fitting, perhaps, that Britain’s distinctly un-British national preserve might be saved by a bear from darkest Peru.

***

I didn’t get the conclusion I expected to when I began researching marmalade. I thought my marmalade journey would end with the festival that accompanies the World’s Original Marmalade Awards: a festival festooned in orange and oranges which celebrates this absurd tradition, as well as the people who perpetuate it. In a normal year, there are classes and presentations, tastings and exhibitions, a church service, all devoted to marmalade. Even the sheep go orange: 50 were dyed in readiness for this year’s festival (it was supposed to be fewer but Jane tells me they “got carried away.”) At the judging in Dalemain in February, the excitement for the festival was palpable. But of course, it was not to be: COVID-19 swept in far more comprehensively and destructively than Storm Ciara. A festival that attracts hundreds of international visitors and involves repeated tastings was off the table long before we went into lockdown.

Even as a peripheral player in the awards, it was deflating. But then I came home and made marmalade.

***

I am standing in my kitchen in London in front of a large pan full of orange jelly, trying to put all the advice and tips that I was given over my four days in Dalemain into practice. I need to make sure the peel is fully cooked before adding the sugar. I need to avoid squeezing the muslin bag so the jelly doesn’t become cloudy. Despite my best efforts, I turn my back for one second (OK, two minutes) to wash out my jars for sterilizing, and turn back to find that the marmalade has whooshed up and spilled all over my hobs in a big sticky puddle. I soldier on, undeterred. Fifteen sticky minutes later, my marmalade is approaching the magic 105ºC. I deploy the wrinkle test — twice, just to be sure — which involves cooling a spoonful of the mixture on a frozen plate, to see if it forms a skin which wrinkles. I leave the marmalade a few minutes before potting, determined not to make the classic “potting too hot” error (which introduces tiny air bubbles into the finished product). And, although no one but me or Sam will ever see this batch, I make sure each jar is filled right to the top.

I stand back and admire my five-and-a-half jars and… I get it. Of course I do. How could I not? My jelly isn’t quite crystal clear, but it is basketball orange, bright and glowing. I dropped saffron strands into a couple of the jars, stirring last minute, and they hang, suspended in the jelly, perfect threads. It may not be award-winning, but it is the best I have ever made. It really does feel like I’ve potted sunshine, a moment in time.

It really does feel like I’ve potted sunshine, a moment in time.

British food writer Diana Henry describes preserving as “holding onto a season, a particular mood” — she calls it “one of the most poetic branches of cooking.” I love this idea. Simone de Beauvoir felt similarly. “The housewife has caught duration in the snare of sugar, she has enclosed life in jars.” There are few fruits for which this is more true than the Seville orange, which you can find in the shops for a handful of weeks; the ability to pot and revisit that season six months down the line is its own breed of kitchen magic. Each jar tells the story of both the season and the maker. When I spoke to fellow judge Will Torrent about the nature of the marmalade awards, he found that this emotional quality seeped into the judging as well as making of the marmalade. ‘There will be a story that has led to that marmalade maker entering at that point. Food awards can sometimes become very serious. It becomes very technical, and yes there is a technical element to this, but at the same time — and I think this is the way I judge — it’s, ‘How does it make me feel?’ And it brings such joy, and it rubs off on everyone else.”

But right now, since global lockdown, it’s more than that. There is something inherently optimistic about preservation, about putting something away for your future. You are saying, “I will be here in a year’s time, and so will this marmalade.” Making marmalade is a lot of effort, and by that token, it is a commitment. Marmalade is a tether to your own future, it’s a savings account. It is shoring yourself up against the instability and uncertainty of life. You do not make marmalade without a small optimism, a hope of orange-colored happiness in your future.

Marmalade is something stable in an uncertain world. It has survived plagues and wars, fires and uprisings. I know that the marmalade I make today will still be there tomorrow. It doesn’t actually need a festival — it doesn’t even need supermarket sales. Marmalade has staying power. That is surely why the British love marmalade so much: because tomorrow everything will be different, but marmalade will be the same.

***

Olivia Potts is a food writer and chef. After a career as a criminal barrister, she retrained in patisserie at Le Cordon Bleu. Her first book, A Half Baked Idea: How grief, love and cake took me from the courtoom to Le Cordon Bleu won the Fortnum & Mason Debut Food Book Award and is published by Fig Tree, Penguin. She is the Guild of Food Writers Food Writer of the Year 2020

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Fact checker: Julie Schwietert Collazo

Editor: Krista Stevens