Marmalade: A Very British Obsession

Olivia Potts | Longreads | July 2020 | Quarter-hour (4,161 phrases)

The darkish wood-panelled eating room is quiet, heavy with focus. Across the room, six pairs of judges sit at tables crowded with glass jars. As the sunshine catches the jars they glow amber, saffron, primrose. The one actual sounds are the murmurs because the pairs of judges seek the advice of, and the common pop! of sterilized jars as they open. Often, there may be the faucet of a pen towards glass, signifying {that a} gold medal has been awarded, adopted by quiet applause or cheers relying on how sugar-drunk the judges are.

That is the judging room of the World’s Unique Marmalade Awards, an annual occasion in Penrith, England, within the English Lake District. I’m right here as a result of I’m obsessive about marmalade. Not with making or consuming it — though I get pleasure from each — however the enigma it represents. I suppose I’m obsessive about these obsessive about it: what’s the attraction? Marmalade is made out of a bitter, bitter fruit that doesn’t develop within the UK; a fruit that requires days of preparation to render remotely edible. And but, marmalade holds a central function in British life and British tradition. It seems within the diaries of Samuel Pepys; James Bond and Paddington Bear eat it. Officers that served in British wars acquired jars of marmalade to remind them of their house nation. Captain Scott took jars to the Antarctic with him, and Edmund Hillary took one up Everest. Marmalade is a part of our nationwide delusion. I need to know why.


Marmalade in Britain is overwhelmingly made out of citrus aurantium, the bitter orange grown within the Spanish metropolis of Seville. This metropolis produces over 4 million kilos of the orange a yr, virtually fully for export to Britain for the marmalade market. How on earth did that occur?

James Bond and Paddington Bear eat it. Officers that served in British wars acquired jars of marmalade to remind them of their house nation. Captain Scott took jars to the Antarctic with him, and Edmund Hillary took one up Everest. Marmalade is a part of our nationwide delusion. I need to know why.

Some would have you ever consider that marmalade was born in a vacuum. That, like Put up-it notes or penicillin, it was invented swiftly, caused by a confluence of unlikely elements. The story goes like this: it was a darkish and stormy evening. The rain fell in torrents, and a Spanish cargo ship was pressured to take an unscheduled dock in Dundee, although it may as effectively have been anyplace; any port in a storm. Its cargo: oranges. A Dundee grocer, James Keiller, rashly buys up the entire load of them. He rapidly discovers these oranges aren’t candy and fleshy, however face-puckering bitter and bitter, extra pip than fruit. His mom, Janet, in an try to provide one thing, boils them up with tons of sugar. And so, marmalade was born.

The reality, I’m afraid, is slightly extra prosaic. We all know that Seville orange marmalade in Britain predates this charming story: there are British recipes for conserves of Seville oranges way back to the 1587 A E book of Cookrye, and a marmalade very very like the one we eat as we speak seems in a recipe ebook by Eliza Cholmondeley revealed round 1677. The Keiller household most likely have been the primary to provide Seville orange marmalade on a business scale, however the Spanish ship story was and is simply good PR. It’s possible, in line with C. Anne Wilson’s The E book of Marmalade, that the cargo ship would solely have been carrying giant portions of Seville oranges as a result of there was a prepared marketplace for them in Scotland, and that Janet Keiller wouldn’t have wanted to invent a recipe for the orange marmalade, as many have been in circulation by that time in England and Scotland. The enlargement of the railways got here at simply the precise time for the Keillers, and when Queen Victoria took a shine to the stuff, it rapidly grew to become modern in London. As soon as business manufacturing was underway, marmalade grew to become a celebrated British export, excellent for abroad commerce, capable of journey lengthy distances preserved by its sugar content material, and able to withstanding extremes of temperature.

In any occasion, marmalade was additionally made with different issues lengthy earlier than it was made with the Seville orange. Early marmalades have been usually made out of quince, and carefully resembled what we now name membrillo: a thick paste that may very well be moulded and would maintain its form. A recipe from 1587 reads “stir it until it’s 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 assist (one factor the Scottish did do within the nineteenth century was transfer marmalade from dinner to the breakfast desk). It was a luxurious merchandise, typically flavored with prized ambergris, rose, and musk. It was given as presents as a present of generosity and riches: Henry VIII acquired “one field of marmalade” from Hull of Exeter in 1524.

Quinces additionally gave marmalade its title: the world comes from the Portuguese title for the fruit, marmelo. Certainly, early port information inform us that marmalade first arrived within the UK from Portugal, although our urge for food for the stuff meant it was quickly coming from Spain and Italy too. It didn’t take lengthy for English travellers to find the recipe — a contented prevalence, since quinces develop very effectively on our temperate isle. We have been, for a short while at the least, an impartial marmalade-making nation, till we bought a style for the overseas bitter orange.

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Solely in English does marmalade connote a citrus-based protect containing peel. In Greek (marmelada), French (marmalade), and Italian (marmellata), the phrase simply means “jam,” with the fruit added afterward to tell apart. Thus marmellata di arance is orange jam: candy, pulpy. Solely marmellata di arance amare is what the English consider as marmalade. And it’s not simply Romance languages: marmelad in Swedish, Marmelade in German, and marmelade in Danish, all generic phrases for any fruit cooked in sugar. The British clearly consider marmalade otherwise from the remainder of the world.


There are a lot of methods to make marmalade. Some boil the fruit complete; others want to chop the peel first. The deserves of pressure-cooking are fiercely debated. However broadly talking, marmalade is made by separating the citrus fruit into its completely different elements — pips, peel, pith, juice — and boiling, earlier than including sugar and boiling once more. Typically, 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 in a single day within the water. The next day, the peel is cooked till tender. Sugar is added, together with any reserved juice, and heated gently till it dissolves, earlier than the warmth is ratcheted as much as convey the combination to a rolling boil. In 10-Quarter-hour, the combination ought to have reached 105°C/220°F — jam temperature — that means that it’ll set as soon as cool. When you make it with Seville oranges, it’s one thing of a nose-to-tail protect: the pips and the pith comprise sufficient pure pectin, a gelling agent, to set the marmalade with out further substances. Nothing is wasted. In idea, it’s an easy course of; in apply it’s riddled with doable unforced errors. You possibly can overboil it, underboil it, add an excessive amount of acid, add too little acid; you may burn the syrup in the identical batch you undercook the peel. You possibly can pot too sizzling, you may pot too cool. Over time, my husband, Sam, has encountered each certainly one of them.

It was Sam who correctly introduced marmalade into my life. He was late for certainly one of our early dates as a result of he was ready for his marmalade to set. He arrived, clutching a sticky, still-warm jar of Seville orange marmalade, in lieu of flowers. Again then, I didn’t even actually eat marmalade. I actually would by no means have countenanced making my very own. Why would anybody hassle? Was he conscious that you could purchase it within the grocery store? I used to be a felony barrister, and the purpose in my life the place I might ditch felony legislation in favor of retraining in pâtisserie was nonetheless years sooner or later.

It was Sam who correctly introduced marmalade into my life. He was late for certainly one of our early dates as a result of he was ready for his marmalade to set.

However Sam got here from an extended line of marmalade lovers and marmalade makers. In marmalade season —  within the UK, Seville oranges are solely obtainable for a number of temporary weeks from the top of December to mid-February — it’s all his household talks about, with lengthy WhatsApp threads dedicated to methods, yields, units. Sam was a superb prepare dinner, however not an particularly enthusiastic one: he cooked easy, practical meals. However marmalade was completely different. Marmalade making was, for him, non-negotiable. Even when we had cabinets packed filled with the earlier years’ labors, when January rolled round, extra have to be made.

(It’s not simply Sam and his household who’re fanatics. So devoted are the marmalade makers of the UK that it’s doable to purchase canned, ready Seville orange peel and pulp, “Ma Made,” the marmalade equal of a cake combine field — simply in case you get that marmalade-making hankering exterior of season.)

For the primary few years of our relationship, this was one thing I merely endured. Love the person, love his marmalade. As I bought into cooking, I attempted to make my very own a number of occasions, with various success, however by no means fairly caught the bug. (In addition to which, we had an terrible lot to get by way of. Even a small batch is numerous marmalade for 2 individuals.) All of it appeared so unpredictable; some years, complete batches needed to be reboiled as Sam muttered darkly about it being a “low-pectin yr.”

When you’re hooked, after all, that is all a part of the attraction. Lucy Deedes is a veteran of each the home made and artisan courses of the World’s Unique Marmalade Awards, scoring three gold medals within the artisan. “You need to get issues proper on the proper time. I’ve by no means made jam as a result of it’s not a lot of a problem. Marmalade solely has three substances, however each batch is completely different, and typically it simply doesn’t prove.”

In different phrases: the tough, maddening nature of marmalade is exactly why individuals love making it. It’s a bit like sourdough: for those who’re going to get into it, it’s a must to actually get into it. Even then, failure lurks round each nook —  however so does the potential of enchancment. That’s irresistible to a sure type of particular person; marmalade attracts the obsessive. Helena Atlee, writer of The Land The place Lemons Develop places it extra bluntly. “Marmalade attracts bigots. They consider in a single true product made out of the bitter oranges the British name Sevilles, and coming most likely from a steamy Scottish kitchen in Dundee.”

For the primary few years of our relationship, this was one thing I merely endured. Love the person, love his marmalade.

I need to meet a few of these obsessives, and perceive the maintain that marmalade has over so many. And I believe I do know the place to search out them: the World’s Unique Marmalade Awards.


I arrived at Dalemain, the place the awards are held, towards the chances, having battled Storm Ciara to make it to the flooded and snowbound Lake District. At that time, I used to be pretty certain that excessive climate circumstances could be the most important problem the awards would face this yr. How a lot February Olivia needed to study. I first spoke to Jane Hasell-McCosh, who’s the founding father of the awards over the cellphone, asking if I may interview her and maybe a few the judges for this piece. ‘“We will do one higher than that,” she informed me. “Would you want to assist us decide?”

I agreed on the spot, however afterward, I started to fret that I didn’t know sufficient about marmalade for the gig. Due to Sam, I eat it way over I used to, and would have a tendency to decide on it over jam. However is that sufficient? Nicely, it was too late for that. On my manner as much as the judging, I braced myself for the marmalade obsessives of which Helena Atlee writes — if not bigots, then at the least fundamentalists. I used to be able to be informed there is just one true solution to make and luxuriate in marmalade, and that any deviation from it’s an aberration and, probably, a perversion.

Dalemain is astonishing. The principle frontage is Georgian, inbuilt 1744, with the previous corridor relationship far additional again to the twelfth century. It has been within the household for over 300 years. Though from the skin the home seems like a Nationwide Belief property, while you step inside you instantly understand it’s a household house. Laundry hangs within the big stone kitchen, canines weave between legs, and again copies of Vogue spill out from beneath a desk within the hallway. On the partitions, portraits of distant ancestors mingle with latest household images. In one of many visitor rooms, a mattress gifted by Queen Anne nonetheless resides. (The mattress, I’m informed, has been modified.)

The awards started as a one-off. Fifteen years in the past, rural Britain was nonetheless struggling after being decimated 4 years earlier by the outbreak of foot-and-mouth illness, a extremely infectious illness which impacts cows and different cloven-footed animals, and customarily requires widespread culling of livestock. Jane needed to do one thing to convey her area people collectively, one thing cheering. There was by no means any plan for it to develop into a daily occasion.

The truth that it did is maybe right down to Jane’s formidable organizational nouse, although I consider her when she tells me how a lot the expansion and success of the occasion took her without warning. That first yr, round 60 jars have been acquired, virtually completely from native rivals. This yr, there are greater than 3,000 entrants from 40 nations around the globe, plus spin-off festivals in Japan and Australia. In the course of the time I spent at Dalemain, two separate manufacturing corporations have been filming.

After 15 years, judging has been honed to a wonderful artwork. The best way it really works is that this: the marmalades are tasted on plastic spoons (by no means double-dipped), with out the interference of bread, oatcakes or every other automobile. Bathtub Oliver biscuits (a savory cracker) are on the desk as a palate cleanser. Every entry has a scorecard and is judged on its look, texture and taste, with factors obtainable for lack of smudges on the jar, colour, brightness, peel distribution, jar stuffed to the highest, stability of jelly to peel, set, measurement of peel, texture of peel, stability of flavors, stability of acidity, size of end, and “total concord.” The marmalades can obtain a counseled, a bronze, a silver, a gold, or nothing in any respect. These which have scored prime marks are then re-judged: there’s a Greatest in Present awarded to the highest home made marmalade, and a “Double Gold” award given to a handful of the easiest throughout the classes. The winner of the very best home made marmalade is bought within the luxurious London division retailer, Fortnum & Mason.

After a brief briefing, and armed with our spoons, we have been prepared to start out judging.

There are extra classes than you might shake a stick at: within the home made class, in addition to the usual Seville orange (which have two sub-categories), darkish and chunky marmalade and “different citrus,” there are classes for kids, first-timers, males, gardeners (the place the predominant ingredient past the citrus was grown by the competitor), octogenarians, and campanologists (bell-ringers). Particular classes of former years have included the whole lot from friends, political & clergy, to hairdressers.

The vary is mind-boggling: a candy potato and occasional marmalade from Taiwan sat alongside a lime glitter marmalade, which regarded like one thing a teenage lady would daub on her eyelids. A coconut and chocolate marmalade elicited groans when it was plucked from a crate, adopted by raised eyebrows and “not unhealthy!”s as soon as truly tasted. I tasted fruits I’ve by no means even heard of, not to mention tried: daidai (the Japanese equal of the Seville orange, bitter, pocked, and pithy), tachibana (a wild mandarin present in Southern Taiwan and Japan), kawachi bankan (a Japanese pomelo), and tangelo (a candy tangy orange that tastes, to me at the least, like jelly beans).

It’s no coincidence that a number of the most placing and scrumptious citrus fruits beforehand unknown to me come from Japan, and that the Japanese are inclined to get pleasure from specific success on the awards. Marmalade is large information in Japan, regardless of the absence of Seville oranges. Two years in the past, Seiko and Yoriko Ninomiya, Japanese marmalade makers, acquired a double-gold award for his or her marmalade, a yuzu and ginger and, suspended within the jelly, tiny yuzu peel stars. They got here to marmalade as a pastime after they retired from careers within the airline trade. They’ve been concerned within the inaugural Japanese Marmalade Awards, that are held at Yawatahama, the place the citrus groves tumble down the hills to the ocean. This yr, they’ve come to the Lake District to assist decide the World awards.

I used to be informed by extra seasoned judges that after I tasted a full mark, gold marmalade, I might know instantly. They usually have been proper. I used to be the primary particular person to strive one of many marmalades that in the end received the Double Gold Worldwide Marmalade award within the artisan class, and it was stop-you-in-your-tracks good. It too was a Japanese marmalade, made out of the endangered tachibana fruit, which tastes like a Seville orange crossed with a mandarin — however it’s not simply the flavour that set it aside. This was a decreased sugar marmalade, which regularly ends in a unfastened, syrupy set, however right here was a set so excellent that many full-sugar marmalades fail to realize; crystal clear, wibbly jelly; similar, completely cooked peel was suspended all through the jar. How may a marmalade be so intelligent? I needed to ring everybody I do know and inform them about these items.

…right here was a set so excellent that many full-sugar marmalades fail to realize; crystal clear, wibbly jelly; similar, completely cooked peel was suspended all through the jar. How may a marmalade be so intelligent?


It’s exhausting to understand while you’re sitting within the stone kitchen of Dalemain, however marmalade’s attraction will not be what it as soon as was. Thane Prince, a British cookery author, preserves specialist and decide of The Huge Allotment Problem, tells me that British tastes and customs have moved on. “It’s old school. I believe the attraction was that it was unique. A luxurious product, and this stuff all the time have caché. However now it’s simply old school. And other people don’t have breakfast in the identical manner.” In the course of the top of marmalade’s reputation, a cooked “Full English” breakfast, accompanied by toast and marmalade was customary. However Britain’s marmalade consumption has been in decline because the Sixties. Maybe establishing marmalade as a breakfast meals was truly sealing its destiny. We now have much less time for breakfast now; we decide one thing up on the go, from a espresso store. Increasingly of us keep away from sugar, or carbs generally. None of this bodes effectively for marmalade’s future.

Its bitterness most likely doesn’t assist, both. We’re programmed to dislike bitterness, as Jennifer McLagan explains in her ebook Bitter: A Style of the World’s Most Harmful Taste. In nature, bitterness usually suggests one thing toxic, which is why infants screw up their faces at bitter tastes. As we age, we lose style buds, and study to love bitter issues: espresso, cigarettes, Campari, darkish chocolate. However every is a battle. And with marmalade, many people seemingly by no means get off the bottom, plumping as an alternative for jam, or peanut butter. It’s actually true that peanut butter and chocolate unfold are gaining floor within the share of the spreads market, the place marmalade resides. Marmalade gross sales have been in regular decline from 2013.

Even in decline, although, marmalade has sway within the supermarkets due to its standing as a basket merchandise: one which buyers use to guage the place to buy. As such, it’s a frequent loss chief, that means retailers promote it at a rock-bottom value to get individuals by way of their doorways. On the time of writing, a one-pound jar of marmalade will be had for as little as 27p (34¢), an not possible value on which to make a revenue.

However, the tide could also be turning. The 2017 launch of Paddington 2 — which concerned a set piece exhibiting Paddington making marmalade in jail — elevated marmalade gross sales by 3 p.c within the UK after a gradual four-year decline, in line with grocery store knowledge collected by analysis agency Kantar. It’s becoming, maybe, that Britain’s distinctly un-British nationwide protect may be saved by a bear from darkest Peru.


I didn’t get the conclusion I anticipated to after I started researching marmalade. I assumed my marmalade journey would finish with the competition that accompanies the World’s Unique Marmalade Awards: a competition festooned in orange and oranges which celebrates this absurd custom, in addition to the individuals who perpetuate it. In a standard yr, there are courses and shows, tastings and exhibitions, a church service, all dedicated to marmalade. Even the sheep go orange: 50 have been dyed in readiness for this yr’s competition (it was presupposed to be fewer however Jane tells me they “bought carried away.”) On the judging in Dalemain in February, the thrill for the competition was palpable. However after all, it was to not be: COVID-19 swept in much more comprehensively and destructively than Storm Ciara. A competition that draws a whole bunch of worldwide guests and entails repeated tastings was off the desk lengthy earlier than we went into lockdown.

At the same time as a peripheral participant within the awards, it was deflating. However then I got here house and made marmalade.


I’m standing in my kitchen in London in entrance of a big pan filled with orange jelly, making an attempt to place all the recommendation and suggestions that I used to be given over my 4 days in Dalemain into apply. I would like to ensure the peel is absolutely cooked earlier than including the sugar. I have to keep away from squeezing the muslin bag so the jelly doesn’t develop into cloudy. Regardless of my greatest efforts, I flip my again for one second (OK, two minutes) to clean out my jars for sterilizing, and switch again to search out that the marmalade has whooshed up and spilled throughout my hobs in an enormous sticky puddle. I soldier on, undeterred. Fifteen sticky minutes later, my marmalade is approaching the magic 105ºC. I deploy the wrinkle check — twice, simply to make sure — which entails cooling a spoonful of the combination on a frozen plate, to see if it varieties a pores and skin which wrinkles. I depart the marmalade a couple of minutes earlier than potting, decided to not make the traditional “potting too sizzling” error (which introduces tiny air bubbles into the completed product). And, though nobody however me or Sam will ever see this batch, I ensure that every jar is stuffed proper to the highest.

I stand again and admire my five-and-a-half jars and… I get it. After all I do. How may I not? My jelly isn’t fairly crystal clear, however it’s basketball orange, brilliant and glowing. I dropped saffron strands into a few the jars, stirring final minute, and so they hold, suspended within the jelly, excellent threads. It might not be award-winning, however it’s the greatest I’ve ever made. It actually does really feel like I’ve potted sunshine, a second in time.

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

British meals author Diana Henry describes preserving as “holding onto a season, a selected temper” — she calls it “probably the most poetic branches of cooking.” I really like this concept. Simone de Beauvoir felt equally. “The housewife has caught period within the snare of sugar, she has enclosed life in jars.” There are few fruits for which that is extra true than the Seville orange, which you could find within the retailers for a handful of weeks; the power to pot and revisit that season six months down the road is its personal breed of kitchen magic. Every jar tells the story of each the season and the maker. After I spoke to fellow decide Will Torrent concerning the nature of the marmalade awards, he discovered that this emotional high quality seeped into the judging in addition to making of the marmalade. ‘There will probably be a narrative that has led to that marmalade maker coming into at that time. Meals awards can typically develop into very severe. It turns into very technical, and sure there’s a technical factor to this, however on the similar time — and I believe that is the way in which I decide — it’s, ‘How does it make me really feel?’ And it brings such pleasure, and it rubs off on everybody else.”

However proper now, since international lockdown, it’s greater than that. There’s something inherently optimistic about preservation, about placing one thing away on your future. You’re saying, “I will probably be right here in a yr’s time, and so will this marmalade.” Making marmalade is numerous effort, and by that token, it’s a dedication. Marmalade is a tether to your individual future, it’s a financial savings account. It’s shoring your self up towards the instability and uncertainty of life. You don’t make marmalade with out a small optimism, a hope of orange-colored happiness in your future.

Marmalade is one thing secure in an unsure world. It has survived plagues and wars, fires and uprisings. I do know that the marmalade I make as we speak will nonetheless be there tomorrow. It doesn’t really want a competition — it doesn’t even want grocery store gross sales. Marmalade has endurance. That is definitely why the British love marmalade a lot: as a result of tomorrow the whole lot will probably be completely different, however marmalade would be the similar.


Olivia Potts is a meals author and chef. After a profession as a felony barrister, she retrained in patisserie at Le Cordon Bleu. Her first ebook, A Half Baked Thought: How grief, love and cake took me from the courtoom to Le Cordon Bleu received the Fortnum & Mason Debut Meals E book Award and is revealed by Fig Tree, Penguin. She is the Guild of Meals Writers Meals Author of the Yr 2020


Reality checker: Julie Schwietert Collazo

Editor: Krista Stevens

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