How one woman's mission to preserve the art of marmalade making has turned into a glorious annual festival held in her Cumbrian home.
In the short days of winter the sight of the first Seville oranges arriving in the shops means one thing – the ritual of marmalade making, the shredded bitter peel transformed by sugar and heat into something delicious. Marmalade, until recently, was old school, elbowed off the breakfast table by pastries containing sexy exotics, such as almonds, apricots and dark chocolate. Meanwhile, Spanish orchards growing Seville oranges were being grubbed up for watermelon fields. But a quest bordering on obsession by a Cumbrian gardener, cook and historian is reviving its status, propelling it from the back of the cupboard to the shelves of luxury delicatessens.
Marmalade has a surprisingly long association with this country. It was originally made with quinces (the Portuguese word for quince is marmelo), until Arab traders brought Seville oranges to Europe in medieval times. One of the earliest English recipes dates from 1587, and the Georgians were crazy for it, serving it as a pudding, a confectionary and even a digestif. Then in the 20th century mass-produced blandness saw its popularity decline.
But in the past decade, marmalade has been raised from unfashionable obscurity to tart cult-status by a handful of devotees, not least Jane Hasell-McCosh of Dalemain House in Cumbria. Jane, a talented gardener who grows citrus fruits in her glasshouse, found her interest in marmalade piqued when she discovered hand-written marmalade recipes by the women of the house dating back over 300 years in the family archives. In 2005 she had the unlikely idea of holding a marmalade festival. She got 60 entries for that first festival. Last March she had more than 3,000 entrants from across the world. “When I started, marmalade was on the decline, no one really could remember it, and most people had given up on it. We’ve re-awakened the fun by reviving old recipes.” She has gone further than this, building relationships with artisan growers and one in particular, Dora Gahona Fraga, who at almost 80 protects ancient Seville organic orange orchards by renting then replanting them, or saving them from destruction.
To walk into the hushed state rooms of Dalemain, where the late winter light makes the thousands of assembled marmalade jars glow, is like entering a cross between a Roald Dahl story and a Victorian Museum of Curiosities. Each jar is tasted, judged, commented upon in handwritten notes, and awarded prizes. One of the judges, Doreen Cameron, is a local hill farmer as well as a seasoned Women’s Institute judge who tastes, on average, around a thousand of the marmalades.
The winner of the 2016 Man-Made category, Reuben Cooperman, has travelled all the way from Perth, Western Australia. “My wife Deborah grows the Sevilles in our yard and I make the marmalade. We wrapped it like crazy in bubble-wrap, kissed it goodbye and hoped for the best. We heard a couple of weeks ago we’d won and only booked our flights this week.”
Each year the overall amateur winner has their marmalade recipe adopted and sold by Fortnum & Mason. Competition is fierce and recipes jealously guarded proving that marmalade is no longer the preserve of your grandmother’s breakfast table.
This article was taken from a longer feature in the February issue of Gardens Illustrated (244).
Words Caroline Beck
Photography Andrew Montgomery