Although today marmalade can be made with almost any of the citrus fruits – there’s a school of thought that insists that Seville oranges make the best.

Marmalade – a long tradition

Although today marmalade can be made with almost any of the citrus fruits – there’s a school of thought that insists that Seville oranges make the best – it was as a quince preserve that it started life.

Most people, if asked, would classify marmalade as a distinctly English breakfast tradition; some would claim it as originating north of the Border in Scotland, and the odd person might suggest its origins were in Portugal. In fact, none of these theories is correct.

Recipes for “marmalade” can be traced back thousands of years, evolving as a method of fruit preservation. Quince was the fruit of the earliest “marmalade”; its forebears can be seen in home-made preserves of Roman times while Greek physicians used prepared quinces and quince jellies as digestive aids and for complaints affecting the stomach, liver and kidneys.

The history of marmalade moved through the centuries and around the Mediterranean into Europe. The name “melomeli” eventually became “marmelo”, the Portuguese name for quince, and the form of quince preserve made in that country during the late middle ages became “marmaleda” and had changed its character somewhat on the way. Throughout Europe and the Mediterranean, there are many versions of the word, not always indicating what we call marmalade, but applied to other preserves and confitures.

Giving some weight to the belief that marmalade arrived in England from Portugal, early records – late 15th century - reveal that marmaledo was certainly imported in Portuguese ships in sufficient quantity to be declared at the port of entry as part of the cargo. It was a very special gift in the reign of Henry VIII, in the form of a sweet, solid quince jelly flavoured with rosewater and musk, sometimes used for medicinal purposes but also as a sweetmeat at the end of a special meal.

Oranges and lemons came to Europe with the Arabs, as did sugar cane. Those oranges of the Middle Ages were bitter, the sour juice used in sauces. The peel was conserved either dry or in syrup for culinary or medicinal use and gradually, as oranges became more readily available, the juice supplied sour sauces, the peels were preserved, and making marmalade from quinces or any other fruits, including oranges, became better known from the 16th century.

The other thing that happened in England was that people started to add grated lemon and orange peel and juice to sharpen the flavour of the 17th century pippin marmalade, made from “pippin” apples.

It isn’t known who made the first true Seville orange marmalade in pots, instead of its progenitors which were solid, boxed and served by cutting up, but by the 17th century the Scots and the English were making orange marmalade, and by the 18th century, shredded-peel orange marmalades were becoming popular. It was the Scots who established marmalade as part of the first meal of the day. Originally the Scots warmed themselves up for the day ahead with a dram of whisky followed by ale with a toast swimming in it (did I hear “Yuk”!). When tea-drinking became popular, the ale was replaced with tea and others replaced the dram as well, in favour of warming sugar-preserved orange peel, or marmalade.

The Scottish connection is believed to have originated from a load of Seville oranges bought cheaply by a grocer from a ship forced into Dundee port by a storm, some time in the 18th century. The grocer’s wife, Janet Keiller, turned the oranges into marmalade with her husband’s stock of sugar. It sold so well in the family shop, that eventually the firm of James Keiller and Son was established in 1797 to manufacture and sell marmalade as a commercial enterprise, their product soon spreading around Scotland and through England to London and the wider world.

With readily available citrus here, there’s really no excuse to buy marmalade and now is the time to be thinking about making it, as first the “poor man’s oranges” ripen, and then oranges come in to season.

If you want a basic, easy recipe which can be adapted to a variety of fruits, try Marmalade (Basic), but if you want to be a bit adventurous try Tamarillo and Orange Marmalade or Watermelon Marmalade.

Remember, too, that you can make Onion Marmalade to go with various meats and other dishes, like Blue Cheese and Walnut Slice and for a memorable partner to lamb racks, try Shallot and Pomegranate Marmalade.

(Information for this article sourced from “The Book of Marmalade by C. Anne Wilson, published by Constable, London, 1985).



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