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Marmalade, a slow burning love.

Updated: Jan 22, 2023

It all started with Frank Coopers thick cut Oxford Marmalade, and I hated it! This wasn’t personal to Frank, I couldn’t stand any of them! Bitter, chunky and in no way, shape or form comparable to Granny’s strawberry jam on toast! How Grandad and Dad could even entertain such a flavour first thing in the morning was befuddling! I realise that on the whole, younger pallets favour sweet rather than sour and salty rather than bitter, but I was a child that liked Grandad’s stilton and raw spring onions straight from the ground from an early age (certainly well within single figures). Marmalade, like aubergines, was just one of those things to be avoided.

Toasted Tea Cake in marmalade anticipation

This all changed relatively quickly, I can’t remember when or by who, but I do remember this shift being brought about by just one superfood. By superfood I don’t mean bursting with nutritional benefits! This superfood oozes comfort, sitting at the pinnacle of puds… Bread & Butter Pudding, a truly Super Food! A superfood for the soul rather than body!


Slathering the bread in butter on one side and marmalade on the other before drowning in custard was a revelation. It just tasted so good and there was no going back. This began my affinity with marmalade.

Marmalade, Chocolate & Raisin Bread & Butter Pud

Marmalade is one of those additions to our culinary heritage born from afar, emanating from trade links and exploration that carved out much of British history. The historic food miles of Marmalade are considerable, as is much of Britain’s rich heritage. The inevitable consequence of an island nation with a penchant for exploration and the resulting trade. An elegant expression of this country’s culinary terroir.


In my professional career I have always steered towards local and seasonal produce despite fashion or trend. I know I should say that this was for environmental and ethical reasons, but the real reason for this is that the quality is far more stable, reliable and cost effective. There are some ingredients that are an exception, who’s quality can be counted on if only for a short period. Seville Oranges are one of those for me.


Citrus fruits are of course not native to these Isles favoring a more temperate and stable climate, especially the bitter oranges prized for marmalade. However, there are heritage varieties of quince that share some citrus qualities. Perhaps this is a link to the origins of marmalade, a word deriving from Portuguese quince paste, but this should be left for a more ardent food historian. Bitter oranges, native to Southeast Asia, migrated towards Europe with the Mors along the Silk Road / Spice Route before taking hold in Andalusia where the climate favored their cultivation. The history of these bitter citrus fruits is largely held in Chinese medicine, as is the case with many herbs and spices.


These oranges were originally prized more for their essential oils and medicinal qualities rather than for their consumption. This could explain why this variety became so popular in Europe, leading to the cultivation of the Seville orange. The prevalent part that Portugal and Spain have historically played in Atlantic trading relationships then cast the net for this fruit far and wide.


Marmalade on toast with a cup tea

The journey to the breakfast table takes a winding path over the centuries. A lovely tale, a winding road of coincidence and experimentation for this preserve. A product of circumstance mixed with a generous helping of creativity. One certainty remains, marmalade is an entrenched part of our culinary heritage, and quite rightly so.


The Seville orange is in season from roughly the middle of December until the end of February, a relatively short window making for a ‘glut’ throughout January. The orchards are planted along the banks of the Guadalquivir around Seville where the wide basin is fed by bordering mountains. Although rainfall is relatively consistent, the higher altitudes bordering this river are prone to flash flooding, making the soils rich and fertile. Annual temperatures remaining above 16°C with long daylight hours, perfect growing conditions for these oranges. This environment brings with it the characteristics for which this they are so prized.


'Nobbly Bobbly' Seville Oranges

Seville Orange Marmalade is the queen of marmalades. This variety of orange, being a relative of those original Asian bitter oranges, has a thick skin, dense pectin laden pith and a rich zesty aroma. These qualities make this the perfect fruit for citrus marmalade.


Every year I tweak the aromatics, taking inspiration from the feel of the season, and my mood of course. This year has been incredibly clement & buoyant with blooms, buds and shoots appearing earlier than expected. Fragrant bay leaves, floral cardamom & sweet warming star anise mirror the season.


Bitter oranges have a complex flavour profile that, when handled sensitively, can take on a lot of robust complex flavors. The juice is sweet but sour, while the zest has a sharp acidic warmth. Bitterness from the pith balances the sweet juice and zesty warmth while providing a floral background, almost reminiscent of lavender. The floral qualities of oranges, especially bitter oranges, is lost behind a vale of acidity and bitterness. This is one of the Seville oranges secret weapons in my mind. An intense floral hit. This floral hit is in all oranges, but only really noticeable in orange blossom water or other such refinements where the acidity and bitterness has been removed. All of this makes seasoning marmalade a sensitive arena.


My favourite seasonings for marmalade are cinnamon, cardamom, juniper, bay, black pepper and ginger. Allspice, clove and star anise do have their place but have a tendency to overpower, catching out the unprepared with their dominance. It is not a case of simply throwing all of these in. Choosing a blend is a matter of trial and error coupled with a smattering of knowledge. How will these seasonings complement, contrast and intimately add to the marmalade?



Cinnamon is sweet, aromatic and warm. It enhances the perception of sweet rather than actually being sweet its self. This is a beautifully submissive spice enjoys the company of others, mirroring their flavour profile making cinnamon a great partner to bitter oranges. This also makes it a great blender. When paired with cardamom the floral notes are drawn out complementing the very fragrant Seville orange while helping to take the edge off its bitterness.


Cardamom has a medicinal, citrus and floral flavour profile. A highly aromatic sweetness balanced by a savory floral character. This is a playful spice, making it a wonderful blender. Take care as it can become dominant if used frivolously. Marmalade certainly benefits from a little cardamom to bolster the floral qualities of the Seville orange masked by the acidity and bitterness.


Juniper is resinous, floral and sharp playful spice. A sweet taste, strong aroma and citrus qualities provide essential balance to seasoning marmalade. The floral qualities joining forces with cardamom to free the intoxicating floral nature of oranges. Both juniper and cinnamon have woody notes that do not complement marmalade which is worth keeping in mind.


These three spices are all complementary seasonings. As with everything a contrast is needed to round out the flavour. For marmalade heat is that balance. While the heat from chili works well I prefer the more subtle approach. I am not a fan of overpowering heat. This is where black pepper and ginger come into their own, both also sharing a citrus or floral quality.


Peppercorns, especially black pepper, are hot, spicy and citrus. Black pepper is a highly citrus spice who’s fiery heat is dominant but easily tamed. The flavour compound responsible for this heat breaks down and evaporates quickly when exposed to air and heat, leaving behind a more subtle warmth and piquant citrus quality. Blending with cinnamon, juniper and cardamom, boosts the floral quality of pepper making this spice a must have!


Ginger has a woody citrus heat while being highly aromatic. The fresh zing is most apparent with raw ginger, while the dried spice gives a direct heat. Both are delightful in marmalade. Blending with pepper gives a pleasant depth to the heat while cardamom and bay draw out the freshness complementing the orange perfectly.


Bay leaves are less of a spice and more of a herb, with a little overlap in that bay leaves are very robust and can be used in the same way as a spice. A resinous, herbal and floral spice the is at home with long cooking in liquid, slowly releasing its flavour. Bay brings a background depth and rounding off to the seasoning of marmalade. It is an addition that is hard to find but noticeable by its absence, the sign of perfect seasoning!



Another aromatic seasoning who’s strength lies in subtilty is tea. Orange and tea are very well suited, both balancing and enhancing simultaneously. This is a long term and popular marriage found in many parts of the culinary world but also in the realm of health. There are many different types of teas, but it is the aromatic qualities of black teas that have a stronger pairing with orange. Earl Grey being the most popular, using bergamot as a significant component of its flavour profile. Experimenting with different teas will certainly elevate a marmalade, bringing a background richness and depth to the flavour.


Cardamom, Anise & Bay

The basic recipe and ratios by weight are 1:2:2. Fruit : Water : Sugar.


Altering these ratios will have consequences with the set and flavour, both of which are fun to play around with but require a little care so as not to end up with a flavorless syrup or block of crystals at the other extreme.


The addition of lemon juice (1 lemon / Kg of fruit) aids the pectin giving a bit of a guarantee over the set and resulting consistency. Seville oranges are loaded with pectin so there is little need for lemon juice with this variety of orange. With sweeter oranges lemon juice is necessary. The addition of acid lowers the pH allowing the pectin to link up and give the set quality. A driving force behind it all is the concentration of the sugar syrup. This acts as both the preservative and as a balance to the texture derived from pectin.


Altering the types of sugar is a great way to experiment with the flavour. I will eliminate caster sugar as an option due to the higher degree of refinement. This processing leaves more impurities on the sugar than other varieties, resulting in a scum on the surface of the preserve.


Granulated sugar is a good place to start. Less refined than caster it gives a cleaner finish. This sugar is generally the most cost effective if that is a consideration.


Demerara sugar brings a delightful toffee element to the flavour and colour.


Soft brown sugar will add a molasses flavour and dark colour to the marmalade.


It is important to take into account the seasonings when altering the type of sugar. The richer the sugar would need a deeper seasoning in order to add to the flavour. On the other hand lighter more floral seasonings will take the edge off of the caramel qualities of the darker sugars.


It is well worth messing around with all of these options in small batches to get a feel for how the flavour changes.


Wash the oranges in water with a clean nail brush or vegetable brush to remove the majority of impurities left behind from farming or travel.


Pierce the skin in one or two places then simmer the oranges whole until tender reserving the liquid. Piercing the skin allows the air to escape during cooking preventing the oranges bobbing up to the surface quite as much. This also help to begin the extraction of pectin and infusing of flavors. Wrap your choice aromatics in muslin (like a tea bag) and add to the pan to infuse during cooking. Alternatively let them roam free, making sure to pick them out.


Then cool in the cooking liquor overnight, intensifying the flavour and allowing the pectin to leech out and the seasonings to penetrate.

Once cool remove the seasonings and oranges reserving the cooking liquor. Cut the cooked oranges in half and remove the flesh, squeezing it out over a sieve or jelly bag, back into the liquor. This stage is perhaps the most important when considering the set. The majority of pectin is held in the pips, pith and white flesh inside the orange, so squeezing as much as possible back into the liquor gives a near perfect set. A jelly bag is fine enough to preserve the finished clarity so an ideal choice.


Shred the skin in whatever way you prefer. Personally, the chunky marmalade is a favorite. It is important to consider the intended use. Leaving the chunks too large is not particularly user friendly for toast at breakfast, but would suit a savory approach as a condiment for cured meats for example.

Top the liquor back up to the original weight if necessary and dissolve the sugar in it using a gentle heat. Do not bring to the simmer before all the sugar is dissolved as this encourages the grouping of crystals and impurities that could lead to a crystallised preserve.


Increase the heat allowing the temperature to increase to 104.5°C or setting point. This will take time so the temptation is to use the highest heat possible to speed up the process. This increases the likelihood of the skin catching or burning on the bottom of the pan so some care is required to balance these factors.


Let the marmalade cool very slightly and start to fill sterilized jars, securing the lid before labeling with the date. Leave for a couple of days, or preferably a week, before opening to allow the set to hold.


Of course Marmalade has its seat at the breakfast table secured for all time, but this is not where it’s journey has to end! Far from it. The balance between bitter and sweet with floral qualities in a condiment make marmalade a seasoning in itself with a plethora of possibilities in the worlds of both savoury and sweet.


Some of my favourite savoury uses for marmalade are;

Glazing a baked ham

An accompaniment for ploughman’s lunch, pies and cold meats

As a glaze for roasting vegetables like carrots

Coating the meat of a sausage roll before rolling in pastry…


Seasoning sweet dishes is far more extensive and equally enjoyable. Here are a few of my favourites:

Hot cross buns and other enriched doughs love marmalade.

Cheesecakes and dairy based desserts pair beautifully, the sharp bitter edge cutting through the fat.

Cakes and bakes are widely accepting of marmalade. From a Bakewell tart and fruit cake to Chelsea buns and even biscuits.


Experiment with the marmalade recipe and use the delightful preserve in as many ways as possible.


However marmalade finds it way into culinary hearts and minds one thing is for certain, a kitchen without it is a sad place indeed!



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