Marmalade: A zest for life’s bitter-sweet pleasures

Seville oranges for making marmalade

Seville oranges for making marmalade - Credit: Archant

I love cooking seasonally. Nothing gives me more pleasure than the changing seasons and the different bounty each brings.

Bittersweet Seville oranges are wonderfully versatile

Bittersweet Seville oranges are wonderfully versatile - Credit: Archant

Early in the year citrus fruit from Spain is at its best. Every day I eat a couple of the juiciest and most delicious oranges. The rest of the year I leave well alone as the flavour and texture are so different. Towards the middle of February this wonderful fruit will become more mediocre.

Finished marmalade

Finished marmalade - Credit: Archant

Seville oranges are not so delicious to eat but wonderful to cook with. They are around until about the same time and luckily can be frozen whole so you can satisfy your marmalade fix year round.

These oranges are a truly seasonal ingredient. In summer, the orange trees of Spain bake under a remorseless sun but in winter, oranges are at their best.

Marmalade makers await the season eagerly, while others may not even be aware of its passing. This is largely because underneath the Seville’s thick, rough skin, the flesh is extremely tart and packed with seeds. It is not an eating orange but its high acidity and wonderful bitter flavour offers the perfect setting power for preserves.

Bitter oranges originated in the northeast of India and neighbouring areas of China and Southeast Asia. During the first centuries of their empire, the Romans took a great interest in the fruit. However, as their domination of Europe ended, so did the cultivation of oranges. By this time, Arabs had established both themselves and the bitter orange in Spain. With the Moors’ irrigation technology, the fruit flourished in the once-dry land.

Some believe that the British passion for the fruit – or rather, the fruit transformed to marmalade – began with a happy mistake. The story goes that marmalade was invented in 1700 when a storm-damaged Spanish ship, carrying Seville oranges, sought refuge in Dundee harbour. The cargo was sold off cheaply to James Keiller, a down-on-his-luck local merchant, whose wife turned it into a preserve.

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There is persuasive evidence that orange marmalade was made in England from Tudor times. Marmalade expert Jane Hasell-McCosh has in her possession a record book compiled by an ancestor in the early 17th Century which contains recipes for orange marmalade.

“The Scots can’t claim this one,” she says. “We are the home of marmalade.”

What can be said with some certainty, however, is that the Keillers of Dundee were the first to establish a marmalade factory,

Despite the huge number of bitter oranges that are grown in Seville, none is available to buy in the shops or markets. The people of Seville can pick the fruit freely from the trees so there’s little point trying to sell them. The Spaniards use few in cooking and they aren’t big marmalade makers so the bulk of the harvest is exported to Britain. That said, the sisters of the San Leandro and Santa Paula convents make bitter orange preserves with traditional recipes that have been handed down the years to be sold alongside their famous pastries.

Marmalade aside, the tart juice of the Seville orange can also be used to create tangy salad dressings and fabulous sauces to cut through the richness of meat and game. The classic French bigarade is a delicious example: a dark sauce based on a demi glace that is port-enriched and orange-flavoured. Not to be confused with duck a la orange.

The juice makes a great alternative to lime or lemon juice in ceviche or escabeche, which is a Latin American fish dish in which the citric acid has a similar effect to heat on the protein bonds in the tissue and ‘cooks’ it by marination.

Firm white fish such as monkfish, plump meaty scallops and oily, omega-3-rich fish such as salmon and mackerel work especially well. Simply slice the fish thinly and marinate in a mixture of bitter orange juice, lightly seasoned with salt and freshly-ground black pepper with some sliced or chopped onion, crushed garlic, maybe a chopped chilli or two – even a grating of ginger. Leave in the fridge or another cool place for a couple of hours or so, until the flesh turns opaque – and that’s all it takes. Just ensure the fish you are using is ultra-fresh. It is also recommended that you partially freeze the flesh first.

To create delicious flavoured oils and vinegars, just drop a piece or two of oven-dried peel into the bottle and leave for a while to infuse. They will beautifully complement zingy, peppery leaves such as rocket, spinach and watercress.

The sharp juices are also fantastic in cakes and pastries, they cut through the richness and fat and go delightfully well with the unsalted buttery flavour. The grated zest is strong and vibrant, leaving almost a tingle in the mouth, Use it sparingly anywhere you would use normal orange zest.

In pannatone or for the custard in a bread and butter pudding, in soufflés, cakes, breads, and even in soups. Of course the aromatic zest has a strong and successful relationship with chocolate and the bitterness of the peel when mixed with dark chocolate is sublime. Whether in cakes, brownies, mousses or for handmade chocolates you just can’t fail to reach a happy conclusion using the Seville orange.

To extend the season and enjoy Seville oranges all year round you can bag them and pop them in the freezer. Grate them from frozen, taking care not to grate the pith, you only want the orange skin. If you let them defrost they will become soft and pulpy and although you can squeeze them for juice, grating is devilishly hard. You can grate any orange when frozen but they don’t defrost well at all. You can use them for marmalade, using the same recipe. They will be softer than the fresh one and quite easy to prepare.

As if to further prove their versatility you can dry the peel - in fact any orange peel - in the oven and use it on your open fire for wonderfully fragrant tinder.

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