07 Mar Marmalade days
My friend, Cath, bought the oranges. “Have oranges – the last ones apparently”, read her text to me on 19 January. Which is odd or she was badly advised. It’s March and marmalade oranges are still in the shops. The man on the market stall looked askance at her when she said she was buying them for me because I was away in southern Spain and wouldn’t be back for a few weeks. It’s a fair assumption: southern Spain, Seville… He’s the one who’s badly advised. You can’t buy them there – you’re surrounded by oranges, but there is not a bitter one in sight. Which is, also, odd.
Anyway, she bought them and housed them in the cool dark comfort of her potting shed on trays covered with tissue, neat little individual oranges all spaced out so as not to touch and bruise one another. Friendships deepen with such small acts of kindness.
Marmalade is a big thing in our house. So big, that each year I make at least four batches – about 40 jars. Enough for us and some to give away. It’s a laborious process; each batch takes most of a day. Squeezing out the juice, collecting the pips, cutting the flesh into tiny neat shards, simmering for a couple of hours, adding the sugar, getting it to a proper rolling boil, cooling, pouring into jars, cooling more, labelling. And a lot of hoping.
On those days, the house is filled with the intense aroma of orange and nostalgia. Marmalade is part of my heritage: the marmalade muse and the tools have been passed down. Though I don’t use her recipe, I make mine in my grandmother’s pan. It’s not one of those classic ‘jelly pans’, wider at the top than the bottom; it’s just a huge, plain, straight-sided saucepan with a stout Bakelite handle on each side. I only use it for marmalade and it hangs in the shed for the rest of the year, but my grandmother used it for all sorts of things: steaming linen napkins, making broth or boiling tripe – one of my grandfather’s favourites. She detested it – the smell would have you running for fresh air; she made it as an act of love.
I use a piece of muslin that was my mother’s. She taught me how important it is to capture all the pips, wrap them in muslin to make a little bag, tie that to the handle and lower it into the pan to simmer in the morass of crushed or cut flesh and water so that the precious pectin would be released through the loose weave. She supervised my first, anxious effort, showed me how to judge how long to boil the fruit and sugar to reach setting point and how to test it. I may not have paid enough attention, though, because it’s still hit and miss. Sometimes it works and the dark, bittersweet stuff has the flawless fusion of liquid and solid, ideal for spreading. Other times, the same quantities, the same technique, and the end result is akin to thick gravy or runny syrup, with no prospect of clinging onto the surface of perfectly toasted bread spread with butter and surviving the journey from plate to mouth.
Is it something to do with atmospheric pressure, not-quite-ripe or just-too-ripe fruit, thick or thin skins, too few or too many pips, the wrong kind of water? I’m beginning to wonder if there’s science to it at all or if it’s some elusive black art. Or magic. Is it about paying attention? Or being in the right mood? Have I offended the marmalade muse and if so, how? This year I landed two perfect batches, thought I had got hold of the magic, and then the third batch, despite my eager cajoling while it cooled, just qualifies as drinking marmalade. I’m thinking a blend might solve it – I’m counting on the fourth and final batch to emerge extra-thick. It’s simmering downstairs as I write. And hope.
The excitement of a perfect batch would be lost if every batch were perfect. The alchemy of fruit, water and sugar is never the same from one day to the next, one year to the next, one generation to the next. Its unknowableness frustrates and delights. The unpredictability is part of the joy.