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Marmalade: A Very British Obsession

Jar of homemade marmalade. (Getty Images)

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.

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