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Scottish penicillin

“I got the blues thinking of the future,” said D.H. Lawrence, “so I left off and made some marmalade. It’s amazing how it cheers one up to shred oranges and scrub the floor.”

Marmalade is considered by some to be an aphrodisiac. Others think it enhances the effect of certain hallucinogenic drugs. Sherlock Holmes ate it with prawns, calling it brain food. Of course most people prefer it spread on toast. And some, like D.H. Lawrence (and me), prefer to make their own. The steam from the simmering citrus peel is a mid-winter tonic, and the final product will keep scurvy at bay. I think of it as Scottish penicillin.

March 10 is National Marmalade Day, marking the Sunday in 1495 when the first shipment of marmalade arrived in Britain from Portugal. That batch was made from quince, a hard and bitter pear-shaped fruit that’s almost inedible raw. But for centuries, people, including the Romans, Greeks, French and Portuguese, have made a sort of jam by slowly simmering quince with honey. In Greece the result is melimelon. The Portuguese call it marmalada, and still consider quince (marmelo) the only fruit worth using. But for millions around the world, marmalade means thick chunks of Seville orange peel, and lots of it, suspended in jelly like burnished gold.

Whatever its origins, marmalade is often associated with Scotland, thanks partly to a Dundee grocer called James Keiller and his canny wife Janet. In 1777 a storm stranded a Spanish ship in Dundee harbour. Keiller got a good deal on the ship’s cargo of Seville oranges. But when he took delivery, he found the skin of the oranges to be thick and coarse, and the pulp sour, stringy and inedible. Janet had the idea to make a jam from the peel – like quince marmalada. More than two centuries later, Keiller & Sons still ship Dundee thick-cut Seville orange marmalade to half the world.

There are many other international and local purveyors of marmalade now, of course. You can get ginger maramalade, three-fruit marmalade, even marmalade made with Scotch, which I think does a disservice to both. I prefer my marmalade straight up -- Seville oranges, water and sugar. Even the venerable marmalade-makers at Tiptree admit that using just oranges and sugar makes it “...more time consuming and more difficult to make a consistent product, but it is still the best way and done properly, gives the very best results.”

National Marmalade Day may be in March, but the time to make it is in late January or early February, when the big lumpy Seville oranges show up in produce stands.  Look for unblemished peel, because that’s what makes the marmalade. Orange is ripe; green is not.

I learned this recipe from my father, who guarded his stash of marmalade like gold. The only way to taste it was to help him make it. This method is time-consuming -- several hours over two days. But it’s simple and reliable. Here’s what you’ll need to make about a dozen cups of marmalade -- a jar for every month of the year.

10 – 12 Seville oranges                                                                      1 package liquid pectin                                                                     8-10 cups sugar (approx)                                                                   1 dozen one-cup canning jars with lids (or two dozen pint jars -- small jars make great gifts)

Wash the oranges well. Quarter them. Remove and discard the stringy pulp and seeds. Trim the peel of any blemishes or stem marks. Chop the peel into thin strips, then chop the strips into quarter- or half-inch pieces, depending on how chunky you like your marmalade.

Measure the peel into a large pot, then add an equal amount of boiling water. Cover and let it sit overnight.

In the morning boil the peel and water for an hour. Measure the batch, and add an equal amount of sugar. Mix in one package of liquid pectin. Slowly bring the mixture to a boil, stirring occasionally, so that it doesn’t burn or scorch. When it starts to bubble, turn the heat down to low and let the marmalade simmer, stirring regularly until it thickens. This can take up to three hours. I put a stool by the stove and read while I stir.

To test if the marmalade is ready, drop a spoonful onto a plate that has been chilled in the freezer. Let it sit for a few minutes, then see how fast it runs when you tip the plate. It should be sluggish.

When it's ready, pour the marmalade into sterilized jars and top with sealing lids. Make sure the ring is tight. If you want to ensure the marmalade keeps for at least a year, place the sealed jars into a pot of boiling water for five or six minutes. Remove them and let them cool. The lids will pop when they have sealed.

Marmalade keeps well, and improves with age. At least, I’ve heard it does. Mine rarely lasts a year. 

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