Winter Marmalade: A Zesty History
Blame it on cultural differences, but while marmalade has long been a staple of the English breakfast table, its popularity has lagged on our side of the pond. Much to the dismay of the British, American tastes favor sweet preserves and thick jams, and even as the British are politely ‘tsk-tsking’ us under their breath, Americans everywhere are busily licking Concord grape jelly off their butter knives.
Survey any American breakfast table and among the bottles of syrup and ketchup you’re bound to find at least one jar of jelly—or, depending upon preference, a pot of jam or preserves. Yet, amid that same swell of condiments, it is highly doubtful you’d come across a single jar of marmalade.
Our diverse tastes are a product of our environments.
Americans have never had to figure out how to turn bitter or sour fruits into something palatable. Instead, all across the country, plenty of sunshine and relative amounts of rainfall have given us juicy berries, plump grapes and ripe fruits bursting with sweetness. There has been little more to do in preserving nature’s bounty for the long days of winter than putting these treasures into jars and tucking them safely away in the cupboard.
Given a more gloomy and wet climate, the English were faced with fruits that were never going to see enough sunshine or heat to ripen fully, so they quickly learned to stew them into thick conserves that could be dolloped atop a biscuit or scone. While marmalade is the most popular of the conserves, its path to the English table was long and circuitous.
The ancient Greeks and Romans were the first to discover the thickening powers of pectin when they stewed quince in honey until they were rewarded with a thick, spreadable paste that was delicious and easily transportable. As this sweet concoction made its way through Europe, sugar replaced the honey and in the absence of quince, it was soon discovered that pippins—those tart, crisp apples—had “jellying” powers, too. The English were quick to include them in the making of conserves and, much like any recipe, it was slowly adjusted to reflect the tastes and preferences of each region. If available, some cooks took to adding a bit of lemon juice or citrus peel to lighten the heaviness of the spice.
While citrus aren’t native to Southern Europe, their arrival on the culinary scene came with the Arabs, who introduced them to Portugal, Spain and Sicily along with the irrigation techniques to keep them alive. The same way that exotic spices made their way into England, so too, did citrus. However, these early fruits bore little resemblance to our modern-day gems—these fruits were bitter and sour and quite inedible.
It could be said that the last legs of marmalade’s journey into the hearts of the English was hastened by the appetites of King Henry VIII, for it’s rumored that after receiving a gift of marmalade, he ordered his kitchen staff to work tirelessly to replicate the recipe. While it would take many more years for marmalade to make its way to the masses, one could arguably reason that if Henry had dispatched the gift as casually as he did his wives, marmalade would never have garnered national recognition.
Purists by nature, the English like their marmalade made with nothing more than Seville oranges—the gold standard—cooked down with sugar. However, the preferred method of preparation varies, with the populace dividing into two camps: finely shredded or coarsely chopped zest, and while some would debate whether the pith should be tossed out altogether, most agree that it is the foundation for the characteristic bitterness that makes for a good marmalade.
Much to the consternation of the British, we Americans have joined the marmalade bandwagon in recent years, raiding nearby citrus groves and unguarded liquor cabinets with abandon. Tradition aside, we have added liberal doses of whiskey and brandy, splashes of rosewater and even a few generous pinches of ginger or cardamom.
Locally, along California’s Central Coast and deep into the Sacramento Valley, we’ve made good use of our plentiful citrus by stirring up countless batches of Cara Cara, Blood Orange and Meyer Lemon marmalade. We’ve taken things a step further by liberating marmalade from the breakfast table and slathering it onto midday sandwiches and, later, onto tender young hens before slipping them into the oven.
Traditionalists we’re not, but epicures? Definitely.