In the mood to make marmalade

Seville oranges are in, but I need to go shopping to improve this year’s batch

Preparing Seville oranges for home made marmalade. Photograph Getty

Preparing Seville oranges for home made marmalade. Photograph Getty

 

I never suspected I’d one day yearn for a preserving pan but now I wish I’d asked for one for Christmas. The bright snowdrops and brave daffodils fail to completely dispel the gloom of our prevailingly dreary weather but nonetheless my wife is in an ascendant mood. She has made her marmalade: by her own admission it is “absolutely excellent”. Now I must make mine and a good preserving pan might just give me the edge I need.

The Seville orange season is short but I got my hands on a couple of kilos. Now I have to dig out the recipe then remember and repeat the happy accident a few years ago that made my first attempt so successful. It was superb and I said so. My wife acknowledged its tastiness but refused to accept my claim of superiority and no rigorous comparison ever really settled the issue.

The following year we instigated a vague attempt at adjudication. Every time we had overnight guests we laid the breakfast table with whichever was the currently seasonal homemade jam. We also presented two unmarked marmalade jars and instructed the visitors to sample both then choose their favourite. People naturally protested at this unexpected ordeal and usually tried to weasel out with weak blandishments such as “Oh, they’re both lovely!”, but we were unyielding and always forced a decision.

We made a lot of marmalade that year and the competition lasted till late autumn. When we finally totted up the votes my wife had narrowly won. That should have been that . . . but . . .

There was no control experiment and the trials were not made under laboratory conditions. Anxiety negatively affects calm judgement and I now admit that the jurors were under severe emotional pressure. They were sweating: the results may have been unreliable and we may have lost friends. Besides, even if I had won, my triumph would have been hollow because that particular contest was additionally compromised for a very different reason.

Our stock of home-made jam and chutney is a bulwark against the ravages of winter and appeals on a primal, atavistic level

Making marmalade is a laborious process and I hadn’t picked a good morning. It was this time of year, the weather was dismal and my mood was grim. I squeezed the oranges, separated the membrane and sliced all the peel. The pips and pulp were tied in an old piece of muslin and tossed truculently into a stockpot along with the juice then set to simmer. Hours crawled by as I glared at the mixture, wiling it to reduce. When I thought it had, I flung in sugar, whiskey and boiled it to buggery before potting the lot and declaring the job to be well and truly done.

Sloshed about

Only it wasn’t. The gloop never set. When cool it sloshed about like citrus soup laced with peel. My wife stepped in. She emptied it back into the stockpot then washed and re-sterilised the jars. I went back to boiling till the surface folded like a lizard’s skin and the marmalade was thick, dark and macho. It looked dodgy, yet tasted delicious. I was delighted but even if it had taken the prize, my wife’s moral supremacy would still have been unassailable. She would never have demanded praise but we would both have known where the true credit lay, which would have been intolerable.

This year I will not ask her help but I might require aid. I need to accessorise. A wide bottomed preserving pan accelerates evaporation: setting point temperature is reached quicker and a dark, intimidating colour is avoided. Also, a jam thermometer would precisely indicate the moment to prevent over-boiling and accidental jelly. And I need good jars. They say you eat first with your eyes and if my marmalade is attractively presented, surely that will enhance its deliciousness?

Our stock of home-made jam and chutney is a bulwark against the ravages of winter and appeals on a primal, atavistic level. It satisfies my inner serf and spiritually connects me to the peasant ancestors from whom we all ultimately descend. These pickles and preserves come in jars of all shapes and sizes – usually sealed with the traditional jam covers still widely available in country supermarkets. But these supposedly handy packs of cellophane circles with accompanying rubber bands and labels are extremely aggravating to use.

The cellophane needs to be wetted on one side only (how the feck?!) then stretched tight over the mouth of the jar and held in place with a rubber band. This requires three hands. To create an airtight seal this must be done with hot, sterilised jars whilst the preserve is still steaming. It’s ridiculously difficult. Then the tiny labels need miniature writing resulting, inevitably, in ugly illegibility.

A Scandinavian outlet near the city has a range of attractively priced, medium sized jars: small enough not to loom aggressively over other condiments on the table and large enough not to get lost in the fridge. The jar mouths match their width and they have cunningly spring-hinged lids with circular rubber seals. They are a joy to fill and seal. A shopping trip might be necessary. This is possibly uneconomic but there’s so much more at stake.

In Sight of Yellow Mountain by Philip Judge is published by Gill Books

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