I grew up in Los Angeles in the 1990s when the diktat for fashion was ‘Victorian consumptive’. My mother was an actress: carbs were verboten and butter was a fable. We never ate toast because no one bought bread. We certainly didn’t eat marmalade, though there was always a jar of Keiller’s in the fridge. My mother would buy it each November before Thanksgiving as her favourite pumpkin pie was the Williams Sonoma recipe which calls for a tablespoon of the stuff. After the event, the jar would be relegated to the back of the fridge where it would spend the rest of its life slowly growing mould in exile.
Like Paddington Bear, I am an immigrant from warmer climes and I, too, have a penchant for wellies no matter the season. I struggle with British weather. My first year in London, I lost a stone and was told that I had high blood pressure. When the kindly Jamaican nurse heard my accent and asked where I was from, she told me the weather was all that was the matter. ‘Eat some bacon and have your husband take you someplace hot.’ Sadly, a tropical holiday was not in my stars. So instead, I did the next best thing. I spent the winter eating bacon butties and learning to make marmalade.
From the moment I inhaled that orange steam, I was hooked. Molten marmalade smells like orange blossom on a sultry southern California night. My ailing lungs relax when I’m stirring a bubbling pot. Pores in my face open, blood vessels dilate and circulation is increased. Pregnancy glow be damned. I had the complexion of a troll when I was up the duff, but I am a goddess when making marmalade.
My competitive nature kicked in the second year I made marmalade, when I decided to enter Dalemain, the World’s Original Marmalade Awards. I won silver marks and have done so every year after that. Where the fuck is my gold? Pure orange jelly has been my whiteness of the whale. I’m like Captain Ahab in a cashmere twin-set and I will stay up all hours of the night hoping to capture the perfect jar. Should my marmalade move, in Mad Men parlance, more like a season two Peggy Olson than a comely Joan Holloway, I will start again. Because it’s got to be good enough for Dalemain. And so far, it hasn’t been.
Competition is stiff at Dalemain. Over 3,000 jars come in from all over the world to be judged by a panel of journalists, bakers and volunteers, many of whom belong to the Women’s Institute. In my mind, they are a brigade of Miss Jean Brodies, armed with teaspoons and strong opinions. They might smile at you in the high street but they will mark you down for the most arbitrary things. Like cloudiness. I’ve received this comment multiple times, despite my marmalade being brighter and clearer than any commercial marmalade. Tell me, how does one score 2 out of 2 points for appearance, but get marked down for being cloudy? I’ve also had points deducted for not filling the jar to the top of the brim. That’s because when I first learned jam-making from my great-grandmother many moons ago, she instructed me to leave a quarter-inch of headspace for a good vacuum seal. When I read their comments, it’s like they’re spitting on her grave.
This year’s scorecard read: ‘Good flavour. Well-filled jar. Peel just chewy.’ My shred is sliced as thinly as is humanly possible. Not since the weeks before my wedding have I ever been so consumed by thinness. Thinner. Finer. Slice it finer. I want it the width of a paper cut. If my husband ‘helps’, I have to redo it. Then the shred soaks overnight before simmering for several hours. The only way it could be conceived as chewy is if you don’t have teeth.
For years, all I wanted was to win gold marks at Dalemain. Then I heard that, several years ago, a well-known television historian had, like me, grown frustrated at never scoring gold marks. So they entered a jar of store-bought marmalade. They went home, melted it down, repotted it and entered it into the competition as their own. The arbiters of taste awarded it gold marks. Please, someone televise this trickery. It’ll be to marmalade what the Judgment of Paris was to wine. This story convinced me to stop trying to impress persnickety old ladies. I already have one grandmother who’s disappointed in me. I needn’t more.
These days, I prefer to keep my jars as opposed to handing them out – like health services dispersing condoms on a college campus. I’ve grown stingy. Each small batch is made across two days. By the end, my skin is flawless but my hands creak with arthritis. Unless someone really loves the stuff, I won’t give my marmalade away. Americans with a curiosity can get lost, I share only with the initiated, the true enthusiasts. I’m not here to proselytise. I’m here to amass as much marmalade as I can before the season ends.
My favourite batch is the last one I make before hanging up my maslin pan. It’s dark and juicy and not pure at all as I mix Sevilles with Sicilian blood oranges. The resulting colour reminds me of Gauguin’s Vision After the Sermon, in which Jacob wrestles with an angel in a blazing field. Gauguin called the shade ‘pure vermillion’. Lots of people think it’s red but it’s the deepest orange ever. Academics say the painting is a metaphor for his internal struggle with God and that the Breton women looking on are the source of Jacob’s struggle. Likewise, the clucking hens at Dalemain have been the source of mine. Marmalade is more than a breakfast preserve. It is edible optimism during the darkest months of the year and a reminder to keep making the best of a sour situation. As long as I preserve it, I preserve myself for another winter.