"Wit ought to be a glorious treat, like caviar. Never spread it about like marmalade".
Noel Coward (1899 - 1973)
Marmalade is made of Seville oranges and sugar, sometimes black treacle and sometimes brown sugar. Dundee marmalade has shredded peel and a variation is Oxford marmalade which is dark and thick cut. While once marmalade was presumed to be made of oranges, today the term is applied to any citrus preserve.
The word marmalade is now protected by European law and can only be applied to jams made from oranges, lemons and grapefruit. Jams are defined as a thick sweet conserve normally made from fruit cooked with sugar.
Marmalade is traditionally made at home during the early spring when Seville oranges are available. Nowadays, almost all the bitter Seville oranges grown in Southern Spain are intended for marmalade for the British market. Jars of marmalade have followed Britons around the world for over a hundred years. In the early twentieth century, Queen Victoria’s granddaughters, the Empress of Russia and the Queen of Greece, had supplies sent regularly from Wilkins of Tiptree in Essex. Frank Cooper’s company in Oxford still has a tin of marmalade that was taken on Scott’s expedition to the North Pole in 1911, discovered in perfect condition in 1980.
In the course of its history, marmalade has generated at least a couple of myths for which the Scots must accept some responsibility. One involves the belief that it gets its name from Mary Queen of Scots, as below. Another is that it was an invention of Janet Keiller, whose Dundee family built the first marmalade factory in 1797. In fact, marmalade made its first appearance in both England and Scotland in wooden boxes. It was a solid sugary mass of marmelos‚ (quinces), exported from Portugal, and first mentioned as marmelada‚ in port records at the end of the fifteenth century. This is what travelled with Mary Queen of Scots when she became seasick on the crossing from Calais to Scotland in 1561. This may, or may not, have helped restore her equilibrium. Quinces were regarded at the time as healing fruits. Her request Marmelade pour Marie malade, was no more than a medicinal pun. Certainly, the medicinal properties of oranges were highly regarded. Candid orange peel was eaten during a fast, so it was a natural thing to pulp and sweeten oranges into a marmalade. It first appears in English cookery books in the seventeenth century when it was promoted as a sweetmeat to aid digestion.
Until about 1700, a bowl of ale with some toast floating in it was regarded as the most warming way to start the day. Then came the tea revolution and tea and crisp toast became the obligatory meal. If it was not to be floated or dunked, this toast required an accompaniment. A solution came in a bargain-load of bitter oranges from Spain, bought by Janet Keiller’s husband from a boat in Dundee harbour. This she made into a preserve. According to the English recipe, you pounded and pulped the fruit, with a pestle and mortar and much patience. Instead, she decided to use a French technique that was much quicker and which chopped the peel into shreds. With a shrewd eye to economy, she decided not to reduce this marmalade‚ to a concentrated paste but to make it less solid. This produced many more pots to the pound. Moreover, it was cooked for a shorter time, improving the flavour and making it easier to spread on toast.
The epicurean traveller, Bishop Richard Pococke (1704-65), indicates the use of what appears to have been marmalade for spreading on toast at breakfast: They always bring toasted bread, and besides, butter, honey and jelly of currants and preserved orange peel.