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Marmalade: The Bitter Truth

I've spent half a century 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.”

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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.

Ingredients

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

Method

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

Sources

  • “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

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