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January 13, 2020
The Secret Society of Marmalade Makers

Each winter the world’s marmalade makers emerge from hibernation for a jam session of epic scale.

In the kitchen, my first pot of marmalade is softly boiling away, filling the house with the spark of citrus peel and cardamom. It’s inching its way toward gelification—or at least what I hope will be gelification. Ideally, once heaped into a small Mason jar and sealed, the mess of julienned satsuma orange peels will be suspended in the vanilla-spiked syrup I’ve been tending over the last hour or so, transforming into a glistening time capsule of this winter’s fortune. If the result is runny or, on the contrary, overset, it’s certainly not the end of the world—oranges do grow on trees, after all—but I’ve done so much research on marmalade while waiting for citrus season proper to start that I feel I must have, perhaps by osmosis, become at least somewhat proficient in the art of jamming whole citrus (actual jamming experience be damned).

The thing I’ve discovered is that marmalade is not simply a room you walk into, look around in, and shut the door upon. Marmalade is an entire world, a rabbit hole with no escape hatch. And somehow I’ve landed the role of Alice, stumbling through groves of boiling theory and orchards of shred method, wondering at the scale of this eccentric subculture. Tomorrow, I plan to marmalade Meyer lemons from the tree out back as well as a handful of neon-yellow grapefruits from the soft-spoken man at New Orleans’ Crescent City Farmers Market. Next week, while in Paris, I’ll be seeking out a stockpile of fresh Seville oranges, the bitter rarities traditionally used in English and Scottish marmalade, and hopefully stowing them away—past customs searches and X-ray scanners—back across the pond for further experimentation.

The UK, blessed with an influx of Seville oranges each January, knows all about this annual ritual. Come the new year, it’s not uncommon there for the average home cook to acquire a case of bitter oranges, boil them down to stock their larder for the year, and dispatch a slather onto everything from toast to scones or a spoonful into tea and the batter of baked goods. You’ll recall Paddington Bear survived on marmalade sandwiches; Sir Edmund Hillary carried a jar on his expedition to Mount Everest, and James Bond was written to partake of it each morning.

To be sure, part of the draw of marmalade is its standard simplicity; at its heart, it’s a basic mixture of sugar, water, and citrus. But the real appeal is its complexity, and the never-ending permutation of a formula that traces its lineage back to the 1600s.

“You have no idea how many ways there are to deal with the same three ingredients,” says Alan Gray, a preservationist architect in the Hudson Valley who sells a cultish, small-batch marmalade dosed with a splash of scotch. More than 20 years ago, Gray began making marmalade with chef Mona Talbott while they were both working on Annie Leibovitz’s estate in upstate New York. One Presidents’ Day weekend, the two were sequestered in a restored 1917 outbuilding kitchen on the photographer’s property with billows of white snow blanketing the grounds around them. They took their first crack at marmalade with a case of Seville oranges Talbott had hunted down. “She would stack the jars up against the windows, and it was like bottling sunshine,” says Gray of Talbott’s process. He’s been making marmalade with obsessive detail ever since.

Gray also documents the jars he makes each year (he’s up to 900 this season) with such meticulous care that even the health department was impressed when they stopped by recently. Though he admits one of his secrets is cooking in copper and adding a touch of kosher salt to each batch—the latter tip inspired by Alice Waters’s method for vinaigrette-making—he is not interested in sharing much else about his process; he says he’s gotten wind that someone has been attempting to ferret out the brand of blended scotch he uses, a detail he insists makes a marked difference in the finished product.

Veda Karlo, a New Yorker of Filipino descent who’s been making jam for the last 40 years (and marmalade for seven) in her Upper East Side apartment, jokes she’s quite possibly the only person ever to acquire carpal tunnel from chopping citrus for a preserve. She’s made so much marmalade over the years that her kitchen curtains turned yellow—until she got a pressure cooker, which she says has drastically reduced cook times as well as halved her gas bill. Karlo doesn’t sell the 500 or 600 jars she makes every year, though; she gives them away to family and friends, along with the 200 pounds of fruitcake, 2,000 cookies, and 50 stollen she bakes annually. “My marmalade is stored in boxes under every bed in my house,” she says. “And my cousin spread the rumor that I was mixing fruitcake in my [spare] bathtub, which was only partly true.” (She stores cases of dried fruits and nuts there.)

Karlo is legendary in marmalade circles. Dan Lepard, a baker, food writer, and judge at Dalemain’s annual marmalade festival in Cumbria in the north of England, told me that every year, the panel is bowled over by her ingenious concoctions. “I wasn’t sure if she was a real person until she came over [to the festival] for a visit,” he says. “She’s inventive in a pure way, and she really understands that what we’re looking for is the fruit captured within the jar.”

One year, for the Macnab category (named for a Scottish ritual in which one hunts a deer, shoots a brace of grouse, and catches a salmon all in one day), she created an orange, cranberry, and horseradish marmalade, which was awarded Most Innovative in 2018. In other years, she’s submitted Buddha’s hand with citron vodka, Seville orange with Plantation pineapple rum, and blood orange with raspberry and kirsch.

“My marmalade is stored in boxes under every bed in my house.”

If one’s first batch of marmalade is the rabbit hole, Dalemain’s festival is Wonderland. It’s also the equivalent of the Oscars for preserved orange fanatics. Founded by Jane Hasell-McCosh in 2005, the event is held at her family’s Edenic Georgian estate in March, and the judging is divided into homemade (for amateurs) and artisan (for professionals) categories, with the former encompassing contests specifically for octogenarians, bell ringers (there’s a rather interesting Venn diagram of campanologists and marmalade-makers around the world), and home gardeners.

In its 15th year, the festival now receives more than 3000 submissions from former British colonies like Australia and Canada as well as countries as far-flung as Singapore and South Korea. There are entrants like Georgina Regas from Spain, who collaborates with women’s cooperatives in Senegal to make marmalade from local citrus; Russel Luckock in Australia, who innovated the “Marmalashes” competition, which, inspired by the Ashes, a cricket match between England and Australia, pits the countries’ marmalades against one another; and Blanka Milfait from the Czech Republic, who, after winning a Double Gold in 2013, drove a tour bus all over Europe to sell her marmalade.

Over the years, Hasell-McCosh and her camp came to realize that they were receiving a disproportionately large number of submissions from Japan—so many that they invited a Japanese ambassador, who enthusiastically embraced a partnership, which has evolved into an annual marmalade festival in the Yawatahama region, where the bulk of the country’s citrus is grown. Lepard says the connection between marmaladia and Japan lies in the legacy of Toichiro Nakashima, a director at food manufacturing company Shokuhin Kogyo, which is now known as the Kewpie Corporation. On his travels abroad in the early 20th century, Nakashima encountered both mayonnaise and marmalade, whose recipes he transported home, resulting in Kewpie and the Blue Flag, respectively (after World War II, Blue Flag’s name was changed to Aohata, which means “blue flag” in Japanese).

As with American cocktails and French pastry, the Japanese adapted and developed the culture of marmalade, and some of Dalemain’s most beguiling submissions have come from Japan. Lepard says that the “dark and chunky” category (marmalade made with thick shred and brown sugar or black treacle) translated to the Japanese corollary of black marmalade, which integrates soy sauce, black sesame, or seaweed; he’s also come across versions studded with salted cherry blossom, yuzu, and sake lees. “The magic of marmalade is that it crosses languages and barriers. It’s soft diplomacy,” says Hasell-McCosh.

It’s probably sacrilege to the English and Scottish, but I’m using a recipe from the French touchstone La Bonne Cuisine by Madame E. Saint-Ange. I am hardly an authority on the subject, so I cannot responsibly recommend a recipe, save for advising that the trove is vast, but I liked M. Ange’s abbreviated, no-nonsense attitude. Not that making marmalade should be laissez-faire—nearly the opposite—but I gave up trawling the intricate alcoves of the marmalade substratum and ceded my trust to intuition, for the first go-round at least: I’m eschewing thermometers and timers in favor of the timeworn technique of eyeballing.

From my conversations with the experts, I can tell you that the constants are these: Boil the citrus once, change the water, boil again (a second, longer soak is up to you, but it seems to make good sense). When you get to the part where you add water, don’t add too much, and make sure you have enough sugar, but again, not too much. Add lemon juice for its pectin-boosting properties, which will help the marmalade set. And don’t be afraid to experiment—herbs, spices, and other citrus fruits are all fair game.

“The magic of marmalade is that it crosses languages and barriers. It’s soft diplomacy.”

Karlo told me to flavor my haul of Meyer lemons with vanilla and ginger and a little gin as well. (She says to think of marmalade like you might cocktails; she’s often inspired by the drinks of bartender Don Lee’s, a friend of hers.) Gray swears by adding salt and not letting the syrup thicken too much so it remains spreadable. (He eats marmalade on toast every single morning; he should know.) Lepard told me about a Japanese technique, which involves blanching the peel, using just enough shred to add flavor, and sugaring the whole batch to taste. (The man judges marmalade for a living.)

Mad Hatters, the bunch of them. But they know the rules of this particular world, and I’m inclined to believe them.

I’ve just put my marmalade away into its vessels to sleep for a bit, but already they look well set. I must admit, my jelly isn’t quite as clear as it should be (the English would probably categorize it as dark and chunky, despite the absence of brown sugar), but everything is floating, Shape of Water style, just as it should. Luckily, citrus season has only just begun—blood oranges and limes have yet to appear—and I’ve got plenty of time to practice before I send a few jars across the pond to Wonderland.

RECIPE: Marmalade Toddy

A Few Marmalades to Buy

Though America diverged somewhere along the preserves path to prefer sweet jams and oranges over the traditional bitter British kind, there has been a recent renaissance in the art of marmalade. Dollop them into your tea, spread them between shortcrust for a gâteau Basque, glaze a pork shoulder with them, why don’t you? Here are a few to seek out.

Alan Gray’s Seville Orange and Scotch Marmalade: Sold exclusively through Talbott & Arding in Hudson, New York, Gray’s marmalade has a thinner shred, spreads beautifully, and works well on a fruit plate with blue cheese and a dark ale.

Blake Hill: Made in Windsor, Vermont, Blake Hill’s preserves and marmalades are made by British expats. Their Meyer lemon and cardamom marmalade is a standout, and a version enrobed in raw honey can also be found at Michigan retailer Zingerman’s.

Brins: Architect Candice Ross grew up in Louisiana, where the word “brins” means “little bit” in Cajun. She began making marmalade with the citrus her mother would send her from home, resulting in a full-on company that now purveys flavors like grapefruit-rosemary and lemon-saffron, which was made in collaboration with the Met.

Jamboree Jams: Using only local fruit, this New Orleans–based company is prolific on the marmalade front. This season, they’re offering satsuma and kumquat, blood orange and sumac, spicy satsuma, and grapefruit and Aleppo pepper.

Robert Lambert: A fascinating character with roots in the ’70s California rock scene, Robert specializes in rare marmalades, such as Rangpur lime and Seville orange, Lisbon lemon, finger lime, and Marrakech limetta.

A Marmalade to Make

Adapted from La Bonne Cuisine by Madame E. Saint-Ange

A relatively simple formula for orange marmalade—oranges, sugar, water—the real key to this recipe is time. The oranges soak in water for two days in order to leech out a fair amount of bitterness. When it comes time to cook the oranges with sugar and water, it can be helpful to add the juice of a whole lemon, which contains pectin, to help the jelly set. Once the nappe point is reached (when the syrup coats the back of a spoon nicely), the hot marmalade is ready to be jarred.

Plunge the oranges into a basin of fully boiling water so that they are completely covered. Cover and maintain a rather lively boiling until the head of an ordinary pin easily pierces the peel. As soon as they pass this test, put the oranges one by one into a terrine of cold water: Let them soak there for 2 days.

Divide the oranges into quarters. Remove the cottony part in the center with scissors. Remove the seeds. Cut the quarters crosswise, including the skin, into slices as thin as possible.

Meanwhile, put some granulated sugar of a weight equal to that of the oranges into the basin. Moisten it with 2 glasses—that is, 4 deciliters (1 2/3 cups)—of water per kilogram (2 pounds, 3 ounces) of sugar. Once this has melted, place it on the heat and bring it to a boil; skim. Put the oranges into the syrup. Reduce the heat to maintain a very gentle boil for 1 hour to give the orange peel time to be completely infused with syrup; it must be quite tender and translucent. Cook the marmalade until the nappe point is reached. Put into jars.

Leslie Pariseau

Leslie Pariseau is a writer and editor in New Orleans. She's written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, The Intercept, The Ringer, Oxford American, Jacobin, and Condé Nast Traveler among others. Leslie co-founded PUNCH, and is a former editor for both TASTE and Saveur and co-author of SPRITZ. With her partner Tony Biancosino, Leslie co-founded Animals & Co., a creative production studio, where she develops and produces television, documentaries, and podcasts. Together, they also own Patron Saint and St. Pizza, a wine shop and pizza shop in the Lower Garden District.