I love marmalade, and it's not just that wonderful tangy flavour. A jar of marmalade makes me feel like I'm doing justice to the old-fashioned idea of a proper British breakfast without going all out on a couple of chafing dishes full of offal and a silver tea strainer. Bitter, bitty, and bitumen-sticky, marmalade, like those other two national idiosyncrasies, Marmite and Gentleman's Relish, is an acquired habit, but once you fall for it, it will be with you for life.
I was saddened to learn last week that we're losing our national taste for the stuff; sales are in free-fall, while such interlopers as chocolate spread and peanut butter wheedle their way into our breakfasting affections. I'll admit I'm a sucker for the odd PB sandwich, but really, it is to marmalade as Dairy Milk is to Valhrona. Marmalade is the choice of Winston Churchill, James Bond and Edmund Hillary. Peanut butter … well, there's always George W Bush.
I'd like to think that the drop in sales is thanks to a collective realisation that, as John Humphrys suggested during an interview with Paddington Bear creator Michael Bond last week, homemade marmalade simply tastes better. Fortunately, the Seville oranges that are absolutely vital for a proper marmalade are only in season for a few weeks every winter, which means the task always has the air of a seasonal treat, rather than a regular chore, while guaranteeing a whole year's worth of breakfast-time bragging.
Marmalade being a very personal thing, it also means you can customise it to suit your taste – thickness of peel, levels of sugar, a sneaky glug of whisky, all are entirely in your hands. Although my marmalade tastes are remarkable catholic – from nostalgic Golden Shred to tar-dark Oxford, I don't discriminate – any marmalade is fair game for a generously buttered slice of crisp brown toast.
One name that comes up time and time again in online discussions of marmalade making is that of Delia Smith – Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall rates her recipe, as does the very reliable Cottage Smallholder blog, so I decide to make it my control. This turns out to be a wise move; I'm not the most experienced preserver, and Delia's characteristically comprehensive instructions are a comforting safety net above the bubbling amber abyss of marmalade misfortune.
Under her reassuring gaze, I squeeze my oranges into a large pan, fishing out any pips and pith into a muslin square that once wrapped a Christmas pudding. The juice of a lemon also goes in – Delia doesn't explain this, but I read elsewhere that it's a good source of pectin, which will help the marmalade to set – and I'm then faced with a bowl of dry orange halves, which need slicing into fine shreds, a task which, after a couple of batches, I discover is about the length of your average Radio Four drama (lucky this is after all the excitement in Ambridge, or I could have done myself a serious mischief).
The peel goes into the pan, along with a couple of litres of water, and the extra pith or seeds into the muslin, which I secure with an elastic band and tie to the handle to suspend it in the water (after going out in search of string, I belatedly realise the bag floats anyway), and the whole lot is then simmered gently for a couple of hours. This softens the peel; as Diana Henry in the Telegraph informs me, it's vital to do this before adding the sugar, as this will arrest the process, and no one wants to be picking bits of recalcitrant rind out of their teeth all morning.
Then it's time for the fun bit; squeezing as much pectin-rich juice as possible from the deliciously squidgy muslin bag and adding it to the pan along with the sugar. Once this has dissolved (it's only after licking my fingers that I realise why quite so much sugar is needed) I bring the pan back to the boil and wait for it to reach setting point – something which can be tested by putting a little of the marmalade on to a cold saucer to check the consistency. Delia says this may take as little as 15 minutes, but I have to wait almost twice that (my own fault, presumably). The result; a vibrant orange preserve with a firm set and a nice sharp flavour. Good old Delia.
Jane Grigson informs me that whole oranges make the "simplest, quickest and best-flavoured marmalades" – she gives two recipes, but it's difficult to prop my paperback copy of English Food open with hands sticky with juice, so I use the one from Darina Allen's Ballymaloe Cookery Course instead.
Tipping a kilogram of oranges into a pan of water and leaving them to soften for a couple of hours feels wonderfully liberating, until I realise that I still have to chop the peel, this time in a baking dish to catch the copious juice. The pips go into a muslin bag, as before, and are returned to the pan along with the shredded peel, juice and sugar, which I've warmed in the oven to help it dissolve more quickly.
This marmalade takes a lot longer to get to the setting point – Darina says 110C is ideal, but this is a matter of debate: Marguerite Patten reckons that marmalade sets between 104 and 105.5C, and that if it gets any hotter than this, then you're in trouble. (Unless my thermometer is faulty, however, I can confirm this isn't true.)
I end up with a tawny amber jelly, with a more complex bittersweet flavour than Delia's marmalade, although the set is less firm.
Nick Sandler and Johnny Acton's book Preserved hasn't let me down yet – their fruits of the forest rum, in particular, makes an excellent Christmas gift. Nick's marmalade recipe is somewhat unorthodox though; the first instruction is to zest the oranges, and then put the peel aside while you make the marmalade itself, which gives it no chance to soften. While it's in the fridge, I squeeze the orange juice into a pan, along with the shells and pips (no fancy muslin here – this is a very manly recipe) and some lemon juice, cover them with extra orange juice and water, and then simmer it all for an hour.
So far, so easy – but the marmalade must then cool for 24 hours before being gently boiled for another couple, then strained and … oh, the solids put into muslin for squeezing. By this point I'm ruing leaving this one until last. The sugar goes into the pan along with the strained juice and the peel I so blithely zested a couple of days ago, when I thought this recipe was going to be a breeze, and it's then boiled until it reaches the setting point, which they reckon is 104C. Thankfully it reaches this very quickly, and the resulting marmalade has a good flavour, but the peel is chewy (unsurprisingly, given it hasn't been softened), and the set rather stern for my tastes.
Delia reckons that preserving sugar, which has larger, more easily soluble crystals, is a waste of money, and I'm inclined to agree with her – as long as you stir the mixture vigorously after adding granulated sugar, there should be no problem with graininess. Warming the sugar, as both she and Darina Allen suggest, to help it dissolve more quickly, is also unnecessary; as well as being a waste of power, it's hard work trying to tip a couple of kilos of the stuff from a hot baking tray into a bubbling pan.
Bee Wilson says that brown sugar is a must for marmalade; according to Tamsin Day-Lewis, the refined stuff leaves a "toxic froth on the surface" – although if it does, I can't see it. Her recipe, which uses 1kg light muscovado sugar to 400g unrefined white granulated sugar, gives a strongly caramelised flavour to the finished preserve. It's nice, but a bit treacley for my taste, so I decide to alter the proportions to half and half instead.
Marmalade is part of the great British tradition of tolerance – you can pop in just about any flavour that takes your fancy. I like a few crushed cardamom pods, added while it settles, or a splash of whisky in the jars, but other suggestions include Campari, chilli, and even bacon (mmm, meaty marmalade). And if you think yours is really special, entries to this year's World Marmalade Awards close on February 6.
Makes: 3 x 1½lb 700g jars
1kg Seville oranges
1kg light muscovado sugar
1kg granulated white sugar
1 piece of muslin
1. Put a sieve over a preserving pan or other very large, non-aluminium saucepan – it's important to leave enough room in the pan to allow the marmalade to bubble without boiling over. Cut the oranges and lemon in half and squeeze the juice into the pan, using the sieve to catch any pips and pith.
2. Put your piece of muslin into a bowl and spoon the pips and pith into it. Cut the peel of the oranges to the desired thickness, tearing off any large pieces of remaining flesh and adding them to the muslin as you go. Put the shredded peel into the pan (any remaining flesh will dissolve during cooking) and tie the muslin bag up tightly and add that too. Pour over 2.5l of water, bring to the boil and then simmer gently for 2 hours. The peel should be soft.
3. Remove the muslin bag and allow to cool in a bowl. It needs to be cold enough to squeeze, so unless you have heatproof gloves, you can leave the marmalade to sit overnight at this point if you want to. Wash your jars in warm soapy water and allow to dry in a cool oven before you embark on the next step.
4. Bring the marmalade back to a simmer, and squeeze the muslin bag hard into it – a good quantity of gloopy juice should come out. Stir this in and then add the sugars and stir well until dissolved. Put a few saucers into the freezer.
5. Turn the heat up and boil rapidly until the marmalade reaches setting point – a sugar thermometer will be helpful here (start checking when it reaches 104C) but to confirm this, put a teaspoonful of the marmalade on to a cold saucer and put in the fridge for a minute or so. If it crinkles when you run a finger through it, and your finger leaves a clear line in the preserve, it's ready. If not, check it every five minutes or so.
6. Allow to sit for 15 minutes then spoon into clean jars and seal immediately.
Do you love or loathe marmalade? What's your favourite additional flavour – and can anything match up to the homemade stuff?