It’s like she’s giving them new life.
It’s the beginning of May and my mother has resurrected a clutch of Seville oranges from her freezer. Bitter and icy now, they will soon, with her help, and like many’s the orange before them, morph into a generosity of sweet, warm marmalade. Though I’ve seen Mum do this a thousand times, I am, for the first time ever, taking notes.
We’ve always been a homemade jams and chutneys kind of house, and there’s a reassurance about being in this kitchen, seeing jars labelled in my mother’s hand – something you could always count on, just as you could always count on seeing my Da, sitting to the right in his armchair. Since the stowing, last January, of this present batch of oranges, however, a lot has changed – the armchair is empty, but life, it seems, and marmalade, must go on.
There’s a languorousness about the process. The oranges, defrosted now, are, along with a few lemons, set to boil. I’m sitting in the kitchen, smelling the citrussy smells, the fruits boiling in a pot that has been a fixture in Mum’s kitchen for as long as I can remember. Pressed into service over the years for jams, jellies and marmalades, stews and collars of bacon, and masses of potatoes for when there were masses of children, it’s used more rarely now.
There are no precise timings with this marmalade and the making of it unfolds as part of the rhythm of the day. While the fruit boils to softness, Mum heads down the road for the daily paper. Once soft, she’ll let everything cool completely, perhaps leaving it until tomorrow to bring the marmalade to a conclusion: extracting the pith; mincing the rinds; dissolving the sugar; boiling, testing, pouring; the plop of molten sweetness filling warmed jars; until, once more, there is marmalade, and life is that little bit sweeter.
This is how my mother usually makes marmalade. The measurements are approximate, the method instinctual. When she says ‘proceed as usual,’ this is more or less what she means.
She uses, along with fruit and sugar in the proportions above, a large, deep pot, some muslin, a collection of reclaimed jam jars and a lifetime of experience.
- Most often, she uses oranges that have been frozen, so she defrosts them overnight, includes a lemon or two in the mix and, because they’ve been frozen, reduces the amount of water she’ll use by perhaps about 25%, though she’ll say it’s just guesswork on her part.
- The oranges and lemons are boiled whole in the water – for perhaps 40 minutes or more – until soft right through. She might stick a skewer into them to test, or slice off some of the rind – she’ll know when it feels right.
- She leaves everything to cool completely in the water for a few hours or sometimes overnight.
- When she and the fruit are both ready, she’ll cut each soft, citrus round in half, scooping out the pith and pips and placing them in a muslin bag. She’ll mince most of the rind, leaving some in chunkier strips, and tell you how much easier this part is if you’ve boiled the fruit first.
- The rind will be returned to the water in which the fruit was boiled and cooled, along with the bag of pith and pips, tied to the pot handle.
- She warms the sugar in a low (60C) oven and heats the water and rinds until just coming to a boil. The pot comes off the heat, she removes the muslin bag, adds the sugar and, while still off the heat, stirs until dissolved.
- While the mix sits and the sugar dissolves, she pulls out old jam jars from her stash. They’ll be washed and go into a low oven to sterilise and warm.
- She will return to the pot anything that drains from the muslin bag and, when the muslin has cooled sufficiently, she will hold it over the pot and squeeze, wringing out its last sticky drops. Meanwhile, a saucer goes into the fridge for later testing of the marmalade set.
- She puts the pot back on the heat and brings it up to a fast boil. After about 10 minutes, she’ll start the ritual of testing the set. Taking the pot off the heat each time, she puts a spoon of marmalade onto the cold saucer, leaves it by an open window for a minute, pushes it with her finger to see if it has matured enough to wrinkle. If not, she boils it for another minute or two and tests it again – 15 or 20 minutes of fast boiling usually does the trick.
- The hot, syrupy marmalade is then funnelled into the warmed jars. It will cool and set, and the jars will be labelled by Mum with their date of birth. They will be enjoyed at home and offered, over time, to visiting family, who will happily take a jar or two, and whose toast will be crowned with sweetness and memories for many mornings to come.