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Seville Orange Marmalade: A Truly British Tradition

February 9, 2016
Here is a dose of “sunshine in a jar” to brighten your day! It’s marmalade makin’ season in the Pacific Northwest. Seville oranges have finally arrived at my local specialty grocer, and my kitchen has been taken over by this annual winter ritual. 
Seville orange marmalade is a fruit preserve that has been a British staple for centuries. If you were invited to tea at the Downton Abbey Dower House with Lady Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, she would be appalled if it had been left off the menu. Its beautiful bright orange color, distinctive tangy flavor and bitter rind make it quite different from the typical sweet orange marmalades available on American supermarket shelves. I distinctly remember purchasing my first jar of James Keiller & Son Dundee Orange Marmalade as a young woman. I had no idea what it would taste like, and knew only that Brits were passionate about it. The first bite was a puzzling surprise to my unsophisticated palate. The classic white jar sat in my refrigerator for months until I gave it a second try. I soon became addicted. Seville orange marmalade is like any other acquired taste, such as gin martinis, broccoli or opera. It is a right of passage that one never regrets and now regularly enjoys. 
Seville orange trees line their titular city as seen in front of the La Giralda bell tower at Seville Cathedral. Image courtesy of Never a Place Blog © 2015 Elle Faba
While marmalade can be produced from any citrus fruit, Seville orange marmalade is the “King of Preserves.”  It is made from Citrus aurantium—also commonly known as the Seville, bitter, sour, bigarade, or marmalade orange—which is the ugliest, most bitter tasting, pip-populated orange you would never want to eat. The fruit originated from Southeast Asia and was brought to Spain by the conquering Moors who ruled before being vanquished by King Ferdinand in 1492. After centuries of hybridization, the Seville orange is now a small, evergreen tree grown throughout the Mediterranean and the subtropical states in the U.S. Renowned for its unparalleled intense flavor, Sevilles are utilized in cooking, essential oil production and the distillation of fine liqueurs such as triple sec and Grand Marnier. However, if you were to ask anyone in Britain what Seville oranges are most valued for, they would indisputably say marmalade, while they slathered it on their toast and washed it down with a cup of Earl Grey tea. 
The Romans first made a simple version of marmalade with quince and honey, but it was the Scots who perfected it. The story goes that a Spanish ship was damaged in a storm and landed in Dundee harbor for repairs. Its cargo of Seville oranges was off-loaded and sold at a bargain price to local merchant James Keiller, whose mother Janet owned a sweet shop. She quickly saw the potential in the bitter fruit as a preserve, and in 1797 the family opened a factory to produce their signature “Dundee Marmalade.” The business prospered and expanded throughout the 19th century, exporting its products to the far reaches of the Empire, from Canada to Australia to Southeast Asia. Today there are many famous British brands of marmalade, including Wilkin & Sons “Tiptree,” Mackays and Robertsons; yet James Keiller & Sons “Dundee Marmalade” remains the most well-known because of the family story. 
Vivien Lloyd, author of First Preserves © 2011 Citrus Press Ltd.
Making orange marmalade is a science and not a domestic art, according to the “Queen of Marmalade” Vivien Lloyd, author of the books, First Preserves: Marmalades, Jams, Chutneys and Marmalade: Make & Bake. She explains, “[R]ecipes that are successful have an ideal balance of fruit, pectin, acid and sugar. They should be brilliant in color and have a jellied consistency; spreadable, but not runny or stiff.” Vivien should know. She has been passionate about preserving since 1987, when a bountiful harvest from her garden in Worcestershire, England sparked her interest. Courses in preservation and judging from the Women’s Institute (the very same group that the ladies of Home Fires are involved in) prepared her to enter and win best in class and “Best of the Best” at the 2008 World’s Original Marmalade Awards at Dalemain Mansion in Penrith, Cumbria.
 Yes, of course there is a Marmalade Festival and competition! Established in 2005 by Jane Hassell-McCosh, the annual event is held on her country estate, a medieval, Tudor and early Georgian house and gardens in England’s Lake District that has been the family pile since 1679. The awards are truly the Holy Grail of serious marmalade preserving. Last year there were over 1,500 entrants from around the world competing for awards in the homemade, artisan, and B&B/hotel/restaurant categories; this year, a Young Chef’s award will be added. The deadline to enter this year’s competition is February 14th, but you can work on your preserving skills and power up for next year with plenty of time to spare. If you happen to be traveling to Northwest England or Scotland and want to visit a classic English country estate and sample several award winning marmalades, the festival is set for March 19-20, 2016. 
Inspired to “have a go” at making marmalade? If so, please make haste. The Seville orange season is very short, running from early January through February. In the U.K., fruit is imported from Spain, but according to my local grocer, the Seville oranges  available for purchase in the Seattle area are “made in America,” grown in the citrus belt from California, Arizona, Texas and Florida. Sevilles lose their flavor and expire very quickly, so preserve them immediately or store them in your refrigerator as briefly as possible. It is best to use granulated white cane sugar, which produces a clear, bright jelly that does not change the pure orange flavor you seek. Here is an excellent video from Vivien Lloyd, including her prize-winning recipe and the complete step-by-step process to create traditional British Seville orange marmalade.

Making Seville Orange Marmalade from Vivien Lloyd on Vimeo.

There is nothing like a bracing bite of orange marmalade on toast to start your day. It also adds incredible flavor to dishes like orange chicken and orange marmalade cake. A jar of this homemade preserve is the perfect gift for family and friends, so do give it a try. I predict you will become as passionate about Seville orange marmalade as the British are.

Laurel Ann Nattress

Writer, blogger, and editor of Jane Austen Made Me Do It, Laurel Ann Nattress is a champion of Georgian civility, British culture and Masterpiece PBS. Visit her at and follow her on twitter as @Austenprose

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