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Marmalade: The Bitter Truth

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Bitter orange marmalade

Bitter orange marmalade

People don’t usually eat oranges without first peeling them. There’s a reason for that; orange peel is very bitter, a flavour most people don’t like. So why is orange peel sliced up and put into marmalade?

Marmalade Is a Scottish Thing

John Keiller takes most of the blame. The story goes that sometime in the 1760s, the Dundee native happened upon a Spanish ship in port loaded with oranges. The vessel had been delayed by storms and its cargo was past its best before date, which meant that Keiller could buy loads of oranges at a good price.

But, the oranges turned out to be of the Seville persuasion; a variety that is not for eating because it is really bitter. So James enlisted the help of his wife Janet. She boiled some of the oranges with a lot of sugar and created marmalade.

Seedundee.com tells us “Obviously natural entrepreneurs, the dynamic duo capitalised on their discovery and later founded James Keiller & Son (named after their son), which became the leading manufacturer of marmalade in the world in the 19th century.”

Nice yarn, and it may even have a tiny bit of truth attached to it, but it’s mostly legend.

There’s another story of equally dubious validity that claims a physician invented marmalade as a medicine to cure Mary, Queen of Scots of seasickness. Credulity is stretched even further by the suggestion that “Mary est malade” (Mary is sick) was contracted into marmalade.

Marmalade was known about prior to the adventures of the Keiller family; however, it was they who commercialized the manufacture and sale of the preserve.

The word “marmalade” comes from the Portuguese name for the fruit quince, marmelo. A fruit preserve made from quince is noted in historical records from Ancient Greece. Over time, oranges became cheaper than quinces so there were switched in as the main ingredient, but the name didn’t change.

That said, marmalade, as bequeathed to the world by John and Janet Keiller, is now very much a British thing. So, in addition to bagpipes and haggis, the Scots also have to answer for marmalade.

Marmalade in Literature

Marmalade crops up in several places among those in the writing racket.

James Boswell wrote that when he and Samuel Johnson visited Scotland in 1773 the breakfast menu included marmalade and a dram of whisky. Some years later, Louisa May Alcott was visiting Britain and she described “a choice pot of marmalade and a slice of cold ham” as essentials.

In Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited, the character Charles Ryder talked of how at Oxford University “I ate my scrambled eggs and bitter marmalade with the zest which in youth follows a restless night.”

George Orwell was less enthusiastic when he described a working class home in The Road to Wigan Pier: “Several bottles of Worcester Sauce and a half-full jar of marmalade lived permanently on the table. It was usual to souse everything, even a piece of cheese, with Worcester Sauce, but I never saw anyone brave the marmalade jar, which was an unspeakable mass of stickiness and dust.”

In The Pocket Full of Rye, Agatha Christie bumped off one of her victims with poison hidden in marmalade. There are those who might say that marmalade is a poison on its own.

We cannot leave this literary diversion without dropping in on Paddington Bear. The British children’s character from “Darkest Peru” was very fond of marmalade. His website notes that “Paddington is famous for his love of marmalade and he is particularly fond of it in marmalade sandwiches. He always carries a jar of it in his suitcase and he usually has a marmalade sandwich tucked under his hat ‘in case of emergencies’ ”.

Marmalade and Breakfast

As Boswell, Alcott, and Waugh noted, marmalade used to be an integral part of the breakfast ritual.

For so many in this hurried world, breakfast is no longer a meal; it’s a quick stop at the drive-through window of a restaurant chain where a chunk of sugary baked goods is dispensed through a window along with a cup of coffee. This on-the-way-to-work "meal” never, ever involves marmalade.

R.W. Apple Jr. enthused mightily in The New York Times about the correct way to begin the day: “Properly made marmalade (which to my taste means dark and treacly stuff, generously endowed with rough-cut strips of peel) has no peer as the crowning glory of a piece of hot buttered toast. On a morning dark and drear, it is superbly restorative, a welcome lift as the new day begins, sweet but not cloying, a ray of sunshine spooned from a jar.”

Marmalade is a ray of sunshine spooned from a jar

Marmalade is a ray of sunshine spooned from a jar

Here at Delishably we hue to the Fox News mantra of “fair and balanced,” but, unlike Fox News, we actually mean it. So, to counter the passion of R.W. Apple Jr., we give you Róisín Waters of The Irish Times on: “Were I to have my way, every last jar of this disgusting, congealing, gelatinous stuff would be thrown on to an immense fairytale fire, to burn by the side of changelings and spinning wheels.

“Marmalade, more than any substance known to man, deserves to be utterly wiped out of existence, to be vapourised, to become an unjam.”

It’s the bitter flavour that makes Ms. Waters pucker up in disgust.

Marmalade on toast

Marmalade on toast

Marmalade in Decline

A growing cohort is nodding in agreement with Róisín Waters, and why not? Humans are programmed to dislike bitterness. In her 2014 book Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor, Jennifer McLagan points out that bitterness is often a signal from nature that poison may be involved.

In today’s world, chocolate spread and peanut butter are far more popular as toast garnishes. A survey by Kantar Worldpanel tells the story of the decline in marmalade sales. It’s mostly older people that are buying the stuff; 76 percent of sales go to folk over 55. People under 28 account for just one percent of the marmalade market.

But, here’s an idea to boost sales:

The Breakfast Martini

This recipe was created in England in the 1990s.


  • 2 teaspoons orange marmalade
  • 1/2 ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1 3/4 ounces gin
  • 1/2 ounce Cointreau


Combine the lemon juice in a cocktail shaker, add gin and Cointreau, and garnish with orange peel.

A couple of shots of this eye-opener and you’re ready for another eight hours on capitalism’s treadmill.

Breakfast martini

Breakfast martini

Bonus Factoids

  • In 1495, a Portuguese ship under the command of Farnando Yanes brought a consignment of marmelada to London. It was made with quinces and came as a solid. It was the first view Brits had of it and they used it as an aid to digestion.
  • Dalemain House near Penrith in England’s Lake District is the site of the annual World's Original Marmalade Awards & Festival. A panel of experts judges marmalades that are entered from all over the world.
  • Every year, Spain exports about 15,000 tonnes of Seville oranges to Britain.
  • In June 2021, 9-year-old Flora Rider entered her homemade preserve in Britain's Homemade Marmalade Awards contest. She won the title of Best in Show, beating out more than 3,000 other entrants.
Seville oranges

Seville oranges


  • “Why Is Dundee Famous for Marmalade?” Claire Merten, seedundee.com, undated.
  • “This Blessed Plot, This Realm of Tea, This Marmalade.” R. W. Apple Jr., New York Times, March 27, 2002.
  • “All About Paddington.” paddington.com, undated.
  • “Orange Marmalade: A British Breakfast Tradition.” Fiona Young-Brown, britishfoodandtravel.com, February 18, 2019.
  • “Marmalade, the Bitter Preserve of the Devil.” Róisín Waters, The Irish Times, April 12, 2013.
  • “Marmalade: A Very British Tradition.” Olivia Potts, longreads.com, July 2020.
  • “Demography: Shopper Behaviour Beyond the Stereotypes.” Kantar Worldpanel, April 2017.
  • “Breakfast Martini.” Colleen Graham, thespruceeats.com, May 6, 2021.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor


Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on May 31, 2021:

Rupert, I agree but except one thing. Say the Robot is a camera. Could not it automatically capture a pic of the Yankee stadium and the audience?

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on May 31, 2021:

Someone still has to give the robot information before it can write a report, or will it sit in the bleachers at Yankee Stadium and report what it "sees?"

Thankfully, I'm in the twilight years of my profession so I'm not really worried about joining the ranks of automobile assemblers and bank tellers who have been displaced by robots.

I can't see how a robot could write Thompson's brilliant description of Nixon; only a human brain could create that sentence.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on May 31, 2021:

Just noted. If Richard Nixon had been a monster(he's according to bad journalism standards), he would hardly resign. Fact is Watergate or Nixongate is better understood than Trumpgate!

Mr. Happy from Toronto, Canada on May 31, 2021:

Thank You for that. I do agree that: "Good journalism is the best available version of the truth." I am just a big fan of tone and style.

"Richard Nixon is gone now, and I am poorer for it. He was the real thing -- a political monster straight out of Grendel and a very dangerous enemy. He could shake your hand and stab you in the back at the same time." - Hunter S. Thompson, MAY 1, 1994 - Is that not a marvelous way of describing Nixon? And an accurate one I would say. It's not journalism but it sort of is.

Anyway, I came back here to ask your opinion on "robot reporters". I had heard of this before but right now, I just watched a small report from Al Jazeera on this topic: "Rise of the machines: Swedish employees trust state to protect, retrain them" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ueytp5KhguE

The bit on the robot journalists is at minute 1:20, half-way in the report. I suppose they (the robots) would not be able to do investigative journalism but they could do the simple things like reporting on sport matches, or perhaps financial news. This is getting weird. Haha! We are living in strange times.

Thanks again and all the very best!

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on May 30, 2021:

I was trained as a reporter; that is to write without injecting myself or my opinions into the stories I produce.

I could never emulate Hunter S. Thompson, nor would I want to. Woodward and Bernstein brought down Nixon over Watergate by solid, old-fashioned reporting; just the facts as confirmed by two or more reliable sources.

Online magazine writing allows for a bit more latitude in putting personal opinion into articles - nobody could have doubts over how I feel about marmalade after reading the article. But, my dislike of marmalade is of no consequence, so I feel comfortable expressing.

Creative writing? I can't do it. My father was a novelist and playwright, but his work was more documentary than outright dramatic invention. I know of several successful journalists who have tried fiction with embarrassing results.

I mostly try to stick to Carl Bernstein's dictum that "Good journalism is the best available version of the truth."

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on May 30, 2021:

Hey Mr Happy, although I'm not a journalist, Rupert Taylor is. I can understand your train of thought. Nevertheless, you make my day happy,though.

Mr. Happy from Toronto, Canada on May 30, 2021:

I was thinking today, after watching a Hunter S. Thompson interview last night, what a gonzo-journalism piece from You would look like. Or, a creative writing piece from You. This because You obviously are good at journalism, that is quite evident but You see, journalism (in my opinion) lacks personal engagement from the writer, as if the journalist is God looking down and describing what She sees.

And we know why that is: we want facts and not the writer's opinion/ego influencing those facts but then again, I think there can be a balance there. One does not have to go as far as Hunter did in many of his pieces of writing, turning journalism more into fiction than journalism. It's a fine line to walk, certainly.

Okay, enough of me. You have yourself a joyful Sunday - cheers!

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on May 29, 2021:

Many thanks Mr. Happy for joining me in the anti-marmalade cadre. It was always on the breakfast table when I was a child. Under duress to eat it I would swirl my knife around in the jar trying to load up with non-orange-peel goo for my toast. I got away with it mostly.

Mr. Happy from Toronto, Canada on May 29, 2021:

" She boiled some of the oranges with a lot of sugar and created marmalade." - One of my grandfathers would say that: "even a piece of @#$% is edible if You put enough sugar on it." - Haha, the magic of sugar.

"marmelo" - So, I did not know the English word for this. In Romanian, we call them "gutui" and one of my grandmas would make marmalade from marmelos all the time. They are not very common here in Ontario, if You've noticed. I found them probably like 3 times in nearly 30 years here. Hence, I never remembered the name in English.

"fair and balanced,” - I am not "fair and balanced" when it comes to the marmalade made from oranges. It is simply awful. I tried it on a few occasion and not pour moi.

You are a mine of information. I was bartender for almost ten years and I never heard of: "The Breakfast Martini." Thank You for sharing.

And thank You for being a great example on how to put together a proper article. I did have a good laugh at your previous comment to someone: "use of the language is not up to the standard needed. Check out the Learning Center...". My last piece of writing was on this topic, so your timing with the comment was impeccable (just regarding me).

All the best!

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on May 28, 2021:

I like the home made Marmalade and prefer them to the factory products. But moderation is the rule. More so, I agree to the whole of the later point.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on May 28, 2021:

I love marmalade and have done so since my childhood. I enjoyed reading your article and learning more about it.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on May 28, 2021:

I guess I fit the demographics of people who enjoy eating marmalade. Reading your article was so informative and enjoyable.

Cheryl E Preston from Roanoke on May 28, 2021:

Great read. I was not aware of these facts about Marmalade.

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