My family is mad for marmalade. Whole potfuls can disappear in a day, the scraped-out jar left forlornly by the sink, with tell-tale spoon languishing inside. We make our own – the whole mad process, from the procurement of large bags of Seville oranges, the washing and chopping to the simmering and boiling and bottling.
On this occasion I was flying solo, the family down with colds and the heap of beautiful Sevilles starting to look less beautiful after a week of neglect. Guilt. I set to with cleaver and squeezer and rendered several kilos of oranges into pan-ready peel. It needs to be soaked and simmered to soften it. There is serious craft in jam-making. Marmalading. Preserving. Lots of good science, a good result for the good adherence to a good basic recipe. The marvels of pectin and sugar, acid and fruit, in the right proportions. Get it wrong and you could be in for a long boil. 20 mins it said, in my good basic recipe, and the magic 104 degrees Celsius for a proper set will be reached. But, at 40 minutes, the thermometer was barely over 100, and there was a pan bubbling in fury as I pondered the mathematical universe of ideals – I wondered if everything could be boiled down to mathematical perfection. Daydreaming on, an hour had passed mystically and the windows misted, and still the temperature did not ramp up. I could see the afternoon vanishing to the pointed end of the day when nothing useful gets done, unless it can be done in front of the next episode of Call the Midwife and Mr Selfridge. The idealistic daydreaming mind was reminded by the practical one that there was a reason for my thermal flatlining – the sugar content was too low. Water was still evaporating, making the pot bubble furiously. Impossible! I had calculated the amount of sugar for the volume of liquid. But then the practical mind counted the empty sugar bags – and there was one too few. I had been too clever for my own good. I had to let the mixture cool before adding more sugar. Then begin again with the simmering. At last, my first squadron of filled jars appeared on the worktop. Golden liveried and inviting.
All the while, the batch two oranges, destined for the dark side of marmalading (Oxford style, with treacle) had been simmering to translucency in another pan. This time, I would make no mistake with my ratios – no daydreaming! But somehow, I the ‘pip bag’ that dangled over the pan caught fire, and all could have turned out much darker. This is an extremely silly thing to do, so I issue a warning about paying attention when working with fire and bubbling cauldrons, and other health and safety matters… Marmalade can be dangerous if neglected.
Another tradition of jam making in our house is the naming. We shun the obvious – ‘Plum Jam’ will not do. The name must commemorate the day and or the intention/outcome – ‘Rainy Day Jam’ is one example, named for a day when we foraged in the pouring rain for blackberries, sloes, elderberries and wild damsons. It was a great jam. ‘Giant Pumpkin Chutney’ was indeed made from a giant pumpkin, but the label was intended to invoke something more extreme than a prosaic pumpkin. Previous year’s marmalades were ‘Tawny’ and ‘Tabby’ after storybook marmalade cats – the latter was a tawny marmalade that got cooked too long and darkened beyond the usual tawny. It could almost have been called ‘Cinders’. ‘Bizarremalade’ was an unusual mix of citrus that was actually very nice, and not bizarre really. The mad marmalade on fire day was stormy, and heavy gales lashed the house. It should have a dramatic name. Maybe I will call the dark one, ‘Fireside’. The slow gold one perhaps, ‘Slow Gold’… but my daughter thinks that is too tame. For danger, I may call it ‘Tiger’, and the dark one ‘Dark Energy’… Maybe they will stay in the cupboard a little longer yet.