Dear Readers, you may will be worrying about the state of my mental acumen at the moment. It’s very clear that the two jars above are definitely not weeds. They do, however, contain one of my favourite seasonal ingredients, Seville oranges. These strange, bitter, seed-filled fruits appear in December and are gone by February – indeed, what with Mum’s death and Dad’s deterioration, I managed to grab the very last of the fruit in Tony’s Continental on East Finchley High Street. It’s surprising to me that many customers buy Seville oranges to eat, and have to be gently advised that this isn’t a good idea by the kind folk in the shop. I suppose that marmalade making is a bit of a faff, but the result lasts all year (well, if you don’t give it all away) and there is such a pleasure about the long process of it, the cutting up of the rind and the testing of the set. It is one of those things that I always do at the start of the year. I was in two minds this time, because of course Mum was always a key beneficiary, but in the end I found it comforting rather than distressing. Let’s never underestimate the soothing powers of cooking, and of ritual.
It takes quite a leap of imagination to go from the knobbly, parsimonious Seville orange to those jars of golden unctuousness, but someone must have decided to put it to the test a long time ago. The fruit is high in pectin, which helps with the set of the marmalade. It is actually grown in Spain, particularly Andalusia, so for once the popular name is actually correct. The fruit has been shipped to the UK from Portugal and Spain since at least 1677, the date of the first extant recipe for ‘marmalet’.
But what actually is it? It’s believed that the Seville orange is a cross between two other varieties: Citrus maxima, otherwise known as the pomelo, gives the fruit its sourness, and Citrus reticulata, the mandarin orange, gives it its orange colour. These two fruits, along with several other varieties of citrus, are the ‘parents’ of all of the rapidly multiplying tribe of tangerines, nadacotts, pink grapefruit and clementines that grace our shelves. Most have been bred for sweetness, ease of peeling and juiciness. The Seville orange stands out as a fruit of grumpiness and character in this good-mannered company.
Incidentally, the Seville orange’s sourness puts it in the same category as grapefruit when it comes to dangerous interactions with some drugs, such as those used for chemotherapy and to prevent the rejection of transplanted organs. At least no sensible person will be drinking Seville orange juice, and I suspect that unless you are a real fan of marmalade the risk is quite low, though I would check with your doctor if you are tempted to indulge.
Seville oranges probably arose naturally in south western Asia, particularly Vietnam, where the growing of an orange tree is said to bring happiness. The plants were exported all over the world by Arab traders, who loved to use them in their courtyards for their fragrance and their golden fruits. Most famously, more than 14,000 of the trees line the streets of Seville, and I imagine that the scent of the flowers is heavenly, though getting dunked on the head by a toppling, overripe orange might also be a hazard.
The Moors cultivated them in Spain from at least the Tenth Century, and there are wild groves of the plant in Florida and The Bahamas which were brought there by the Spanish. And no wonder. Although the fruit is used for marmalade, it has a multitude of other uses.
- You can use the peel to flavour liqueurs such as Triple Sec, Curacao (where a special subspecies of the Seville orange is grown for precisely this purpose) and my personal favourite, Grand Marnier.
- The peel is used to flavour gingerbread and other desserts throughout the Nordic region. A Finnish Easter dish called Mammi looks particularly enticing.
- In Greece, Cyprus and Albania the fruit is an important component of spoon sweets – tasty preserves which are served on a spoon, usually with a strong Greek or Albanian coffee and sometimes cheese.
- Seville oranges are used extensively as a side dish for charred meat and fish dishes in Iraqi and Iranian cuisine , and is also used as a salad dressing.
- In Belgium, Seville orange peel is one of the ingredients of Witbier, or ‘White beer’,
- I watched an episode of the Netflix cookery series ‘Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat’, in which the chef Samrin Nosrat travelled to the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico. Seville oranges are used extensively in the cuisine here in preference to other sources of sour flavours (such as vinegar). In particular it is used in the pork dish Cochinita pibil, in which the meat is marinated in the bitter orange juice, seasoned with annatto (an orange-red condiment) and then roasted in a banana leaf.
After all that food you might be glad to hear that essence of bitter orange has been marketed as a dietary aid and appetite suppressant, but hold your horses – some of the chemicals in the fruit act to raise heart rate and blood pressure, which is not desirable if you have circulatory problems of any kind. The supplements have been linked to stroke, angina and ischaemic colitis. Best to just lay off the marmalade, I think.
The Seville orange tree has also been used as a rootstock to grow the sweeter varieties, to make soap and as the material for Cuban baseball bats. The essential oil is also widely used in toiletries and perfumery.
And now I find myself getting quite hungry. The only thing to do is, of course, to head downstairs for some toast and marmalade. But here is a poem that sums up the communal nature of marmalade making in many villages and towns all over the world.
The Makings of Marmalade
unripe oranges in silk-lined sacks
china jugs of orange-washing water
one big bowl
pith-paring knives, one for each woman
a mountain of sugar, poured slowly
a small Sevillian well
songsheets against the tedium, in parts
pine cones for burning
silver spoons for licking up the lost bits
a seven-gallon pot
a waxed circle, a sellophane circle, elastic
small pieces of toast
Photo One by By Genet at de.wikipedia – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12761671
Photo Two by By Ananda – uploader’s creation, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=457650
Photo Three by By 4028mdk09 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25423079
Photo Four by © Jared Preston
Photo Five by Kuriosatempel – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=68214466
Photo Six by By No machine-readable author provided. Strangnet assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=644547
Photo Seven by Ανώνυμος Βικιπαιδιστής – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60773137