Baking, Dessert, Food, Fruit, Ingredients, Marmalade, Nonfiction, Recipes, Seville oranges, Stories
Up until relatively recently all oranges were bitter. They originated – as did all varieties, right down to the tangerine and the kumquat – from China, and go back 3,000 years. Arab traders brought them to Europe at the end of the Roman Empire, along with spices, silk and sugar, and the main crop was established around the area of Seville, in Andalusia, hence the name we English know them by. The skin of the bitter orange (Citrus aurantium) is distinct from its sweet cousin (C. sinensis) in that it is baggy and heavily dimpled, reminiscent of cellulite. Here in southern California, bitter oranges are often left to rot on the branch, untouched and overlooked, but up until the nineteenth century it was the bitterness that people prized the most. The aromatic peel and sharp juice were symbols of opulence and sensuality, and the flowers were distilled and used to flavour food as well as to perfume baths and make-up.
They make the best marmalade, without a doubt. In fact they made the first marmalade, if you ignore the Portuguese quince version and the pear, plum and gooseberry pastes of Tudor England. And of course it was all fluke: a ship containing a cargo of Seville oranges took shelter from a storm in Dundee. Local greengrocer James Keiller bought the lot, and his wife, Janet, turned them into marmalade. By 1797, they had the first marmalade factory.
I have to include a recipe for marmalade. I came by some Chinottos here (a variety of bitter orange) and needed to put them to good use, but there are many other things you can do with them. Bitter oranges and their peel freeze well, so if you’re ever in doubt, always say yes. Their juice is a good replacement for lemon or lime, particularly to accompany rich meat, such as duck. The peel can be used for a bouquet garni which deepens and adds character to stews – pare strips of zest using a potato peeler from the fruit and hang up to dry in a warm, sunny place before adding it to a herb bundle.
The marmalade recipe below uses demerara, similar to turbinado, cassonade or Hawaiian washed sugar, which is darker and coarser than cane sugar and adds a treacly dimension. It is in no way intended to be a definitive version. Marmalade, I’ve realized, is a very personal thing and everyone has their peccadilloes – thick cut or thin, syrupy, solid, wobbly, astringent, ladled over ice cream, eaten only at night etc. In other words, marmalade is a minefield. So with that in mind, I tentatively ask you to please consider this version and we’ll hopefully leave it at that.
Bitter orange marmalade
Adapted from Pam Corbin, River Cottage Handbook No.2: Preserves
1kg (2.25lb) bitter oranges
75 ml (5 tbs) lemon juice
2kg (4.5lb) Demerara sugar
2.5 litres (4½ pints) of water
Makes 5-6 450g (1lb) jars
I followed the instructions for the bergamot and orange marmalade recipe here, with one difference: the lemon juice is added to the pan with the sugar, not before. The emphasis on weight rather than individual oranges helps keep the ratios balanced, but always taste as you go. I often add three-quarters of the warmed sugar to the juice and taste, then add some more, taking it bit by bit; only you know your sweetness threshold.
This dough is idiot-proof and takes well to being speckled with rosemary. Think of the tart as a ‘shelf’ for the marmalade and you have yourself a fine breakfast. It also makes a suave dessert, delicately poised over a lake of cream with the breath of the oven still upon it. I have a preference for thin, ‘single’ cream, which laps at the edges of the crust and swirls, ripple-like, through the sticky juice. A crisp cloud of vanilla ice cream is also not to be sniffed at.
Adapted from a David Lebovitz recipe for Easy Jam Tart
9 tbs (110g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
½ cup (100g) sugar
1 large egg & 1 large egg yolk
Small splash of almond extract
1½ cup (190g) flour
½ cup (70g) ground almonds
½ tsp sea salt
1 scant tsp baking powder
1¾ cups (450g) marmalade or jam (apricot would be lovely)
Zest of a lemon or orange
1 tsp finely chopped rosemary
Beat together the butter and sugar until well incorporated. Then mix in the egg, egg yolk, zest and almond extract. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, ground almonds, salt, finely chopped rosemary and baking powder. Gradually add the dry ingredients to the wet until the mixture just comes together. Take about ¾ of the dough and pat it into a disc shape, wrap it in plastic and put it in the fridge. Take the remaining dough and roll it into a log shape about 2ins (5cm) in diameter, wrap it in plastic and chill both pieces for about half an hour.
Remove the disc-shaped dough from the fridge and, using the heel of your hand, press it into the bottom and sides of an unbuttered tart pan (9-10ins/24cm). Pat until it looks evenly distributed. Now spread the marmalade over the top so that it forms a smooth plateau. Remove the log of dough from the fridge and slice into cookie-sized rounds, then lay these over the marmalade, in whatever pattern you want; try to cover as much of the preserve as possible as you go. Top with Demerara sugar (about 2 tbs) and bake for about 30 minutes, or until the pastry is golden brown. Let it cool slightly before serving.
Jade French said:
Thank you Sophie, I found the history of oranges really interesting and will definitely try your recipe for bitter orange marmalade, as I can never buy it and find most marmalade too sweet. I wonder if the same recipe will work for grapefruit?
Yes I think it would work with grapefruit – you’d certainly get the bitterness. In fact there’s a great recipe from a National Trust book on preserves – I’ll send you the link. Thinking of you both on your amazing travels 🙂
Vivien Lloyd said:
I have a great recipe for Grapefruit and Lemon Marmalade in my book First Preserves. My ibook , First Preserves Marmalades with traditional, tried and tested recipes will be available as a download from Apple iBookstore very soon
Nice pics! Interesting marmalade history and reciepts…
Jade French said:
I thought the ‘boiled to buggery’ bit was really funny. I should think a lot of Americans will be scratching their heads over that one 🙂
Yes, it sounds vaguely illegal doesn’t it….
Jennifer Honess said:
This looks absolutely delicious…..everything! Now in rome and will see if I can find some Seville oranges! Thank you for this site! Jennifer
Glad you’ll give it a try – let me know how you get on. Not sure if you can get to Calabria at all, but that’s the region for all the bergamots. I’m very jealous. Sophie
Jonathan Lucas said:
Sophie always writes about things that are not only fascinating but also realy informative and fun at the same time… keep it up!
Rory Green said:
Your description of the marmalade tart is pure delicious poetry! You always make me hungry!!
Peter Benner said:
Hi Sophie: This is Peter Benner. I’m searching for some of the Citrus myrtifolia orange peel. Where did you find it? I have a customer who wants to use it for bitters recipes. Thanks for any leads you can give….Peter
Sophie James said:
Hello Peter. I came by the bitter oranges at a botanical garden where I was volunteering. They grow occasionally in people’s back gardens here (LA), but they’re hard to come by otherwise. I know in England, they import them from Spain around Christmas time and sell them at fruit and veg markets. Sorry I can’t be more helpful. Sophie