Of tangerine trees and marmalade skies

Marmalade on toast for breakfast – a curious British craving – suffered a knockback with the arrival of yoghurt and muesli. Yet, marmalade in a variety of fruity guises is a stalwart of country fairs, homebake festivals, and the shelves of discerning gourmets. It can even lead to the odd battle.

British-style marmalade is a sweet preserve with a bitter tang made from fruit, sugar, and water. American-style marmalade is sweet, without the bitterness. The favoured citrus fruit for marmalade production in England is the “bitter orange”, originally imported from Seville, Spain. Marmalade can also be made from lemons, limes, grapefruit, tangerines, kumquats, and quinces.

The Seville orange is particularly tart and grows throughout the Mediterranean region. It has a thick, dimpled skin and is higher in pectin than the sweet orange, giving a better set and a higher yield. It is also used in compotes and for orange-flavoured liqueurs. The fruit is little consumed in Andalusia, but shipped abroad to be used in marmalade.

In 1979, in one of its fits of bureaucratic wrangling, the European Union issued a directive setting minimum standards for the amount of “fruit” in jam. The definition of fruit took into account several unusual kinds of jam made in the region and included tomatoes, cucumbers, pumpkins, and vegetables such as rhubarb, carrots, and sweet potatoes. The definition continued to apply in a later directive of 2001 covering fruit jams, jellies, and marmalades.

The Romans learned from the Greeks that quinces cooked slowly with honey would “set” when cool. The Greek word melimēlon or “honey fruit” coined as a result was transformed into marmelo. A Roman cookbook called the Apicius gives a recipe for preserving whole quinces, stems and leaves attached, in a bath of honey diluted with grape juice: Roman marmalade. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “marmalade” appeared in the English language in 1480 as a borrowing from the French marmelade which, in turn, came from the Portuguese marmelada.

The Scottish city of Dundee has a long association with marmalade. An apocryphal story says that in 1797 James Keiller bought a ship load of oranges from a Spanish ship seeking harbour from a winter storm. The oranges were already less than fresh and the bargain purchase gave him the opportunity to manufacture a large quantity of marmalade.

All of this is a prelude to a bittersweet fight this weekend between residents of Buninyong, near Melbourne, Australia, and the Cumbria branch of the Women’s Institute in Dalemain, England. My money is on the WI. Buninyong has submitted 11 jars of marmalade in a challenge to discover who makes the better preserve. Australia lost the cricketing Ashes at the end of 2010, so the contest has been dubbed the “MarmalAshes”.

The organisers of the World’s Original Marmalade Awards are hyping the showdown by suggesting a ritual burning of wooden spoons in both towns. The ashes would be gathered in a suitable vessel and a silver spoon presented to the winning team. The contest takes place 12-13 February 2011 and they are expecting a record number of entries.

The Aussies are in for a rough ride. England is not only the adopted home of the despised Seville orange, but also of Paddington Bear. Arriving from Darkest Peru, with his old hat, battered suitcase, duffle coat, and love of marmalade sandwiches, he is a formidable character in English children’s literature. Few dare dispute his assertion that, “Bears like marmalade.”

By the way, the title of this blog has precious little to do with any of the above. One of the tracks on the much acclaimed Beatles album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) is “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. It includes the lines:  “Picture yourself in a boat on a river with tangerine trees and marmalade skies. Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly a girl with kaleidoscope eyes.”

OK. I didn’t manage to get the kaleidoscope in…

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