English breakfasts are famous – for high fat and calorie content and sheer quantities of food. Think of a country house in a BBC classic production: a sideboard groaning with porridge, eggs, bacon, kippers, friend bread, kidneys, grilled mushrooms and tomatoes, etc. And lots of toast with – what else – marmalade. The orange preserve is inextricably associated with the traditional British breakfast. My own father, who has moved on from bacon and eggs to a healthier yoghurt and granola, wouldn’t dream of missing his toast and marmalade. In fact he travels with a jar of it in case he winds up in some uncivilized part of the globe where it isn’t readily available.
When did marmalade, which is made from fruits not exactly native to the local climate, become a British institution? To talk about the history of the preserve I invited Elizabeth Field to join us. Her new book Marmalade: Sweet and Savory Spreads for a Sophisticated Taste was published this month. It’s a beautiful volume, with a wealth of history and anecdotes as well as recipes and photographs that make me hungry enough to cook.
How did you become interested in marmalade?
I became interested in marmalade as an adult; I never liked it as a child. In the late ’90s I did a newspaper article on a local (Columbia County, upstate NY) male marmalade maker. It was a frigid January day, and went I walked into his kitchen the bright luscious aroma of oranges, and the sight of amber jars of marmalade on the windowsill was an immediate sensory experience. Once I tasted the marmalade, I realized what I had been missing for all those years!
When and how did marmalade become an essential part of the English breakfast?
Solid quince marmalades similar to today’s membrillo had been imported to England from Spain and Portugal from the late 15th century. They were packed in round wooden boxes, as depicted in this Still-Life with Oranges and Walnuts by the Spanish painter Luis Egidio Meléndez [1716 - 1780]
They were a rare and expensive delicacy with reputed aphrodisiac properties, and were taken by the nobility after feasts as a remedy for an upset stomach. English and French cooks made their own version of quince marmalade called alternatively cotignac, chardequince and quiddony. Sometimes it was molded into fancy, beautiful shapes.
In Scotland, however, the climate was generally too cold for growing quince trees. Bitter (Seville) oranges had been imported since the end of the 15th century, and gentry households began candying oranges and other fruits with sugar obtained from sugar-boiling houses in Glasgow and Leith, at the end of the 17th century. The first English printed recipe for orange marmalade Scottish cookbooks was published by Mary Kettilby in 1714. Oranges and sugar were still considered medicinal, especially for warming a cold early morning stomach. And thus a big shift in eating patterns occurred: Orange marmalade was now being served at breakfast rather than after dinner.
Later in the century the Scots became famous for their breakfasts. On a journey to the western islands of Scotland in 1773, James Boswell wrote: “Not long after the dram [of whiskey], may be expected the breakfast, a meal in which the Scots, whether of the lowlands or mountains, must be confessed to excel us. The tea and coffee are accompanied, not only with butter, but with honey, conserves and marmalades.”
Orange marmalades began to be mass-produced in factories at the end of the 18th century. They became a ubiquitous part of the English breakfast, which reached epic proportions during the Victorian era. Marmalade
became (and remains) so essential to the English breakfast, that it’s impossible to imagine a morning meal without it.
What kind of marmalade would a Regency era gentleman eat?
This chap would have had a choice of orange marmalades on his table: clear, transparent ones with no visible peels; dark, robust ones with chunky peels (Dundee marmalade); ”beaten” marmalades made by pounding orange peels and pulp together with sugar and water; or amber ones with fine “chips” (peels).
Was there any difficulty getting oranges in Britain during the Napoleonic wars?
Food supplies were often cut off during this period of wartime. Then, as today, the richest people, willing to pay exorbitant prices, would have had a better shot at obtaining imported goods such as oranges, than less affluent citizens.
I always thinks of marmalade as a citrus preserve, but your book contains preserves made of other ingredients. What’s the definition of marmalade?
This is a great question. Webster’s Dictionary defines marmalade as “a soft, clear, translucent jelly holding in suspension pieces of fruit and fruit rind (orange),” but one of my favorite English cookery writers, May Byron, declares that “after long and careful investigation, I find it impossible to differentiate between jams and marmalades.” Period cookbooks offer recipes with marmalades made from all kinds of fruit, but today people generally associate marmalade with oranges and other citrus fruit.
What is your favorite recipe in the book?
It would have to be the Crème d’Arcy, a sinfully rich ice cream made from light cream, heavy cream, egg yolks, superfine sugar and traditional Seville orange marmalade. I adapted the recipe from a Scottish cookbook, The Practice of Cookery, Pastry and Confectionery, by J. Caird. (1809) It’s incredibly easy. I also like all the classic Seville orange recipes, plus some exotic variations such as passion fruit marmalade.
Marmalade ice cream! That’s something I wouldn’t have thought of. It sounds absolutely delicious. I’ll have to try the recipe. Thanks so much for visiting The Ballroom, Elizabeth. I really love the book. In fact I became so engrossed I forget to write down questions and had to start again!
What’s your favorite breakfast, traditional or modern? Do you like marmalade? If you have any question about the history of the preserve, about making it or any other marmalade related topics, Elizabeth is the right person to answer them. Her publisher, Running Press Books, has kindly offered to send a copy of her book to two commenters.