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.