Marmalade, memory and inheritance


In the UK, the dreich month of January is brightened by the making of marmalade. A quintessentially British tradition, orange marmalade supposedly originated in Dundee after a shipwrecked cargo of bitter oranges challenged the locals to come up with an innovative way of preventing all from going to waste. There is even an annual marmalade championship held in Cumbria, which I’m told is taken very seriously. My Mum's marmalade was entered one year, unbeknownst to her, receiving special commendation but not becoming the official marmalade of Fortum and Mason - which is the top prize. Mum says she is extremely relieved she did not win.


The ritual of marmalade making in our house has been carefully guarded by Mum ever since I can remember. This is somewhat at odds with the general order of things, because Mum is not the cook in our house. That role belongs to Dad, while Mum reigns over the beautiful woodland garden. She claims that she is non-domestic, although despite this she is the uncontested queen of soup making, scrambled eggs, delicate appetizers, and the marmalade which features at every 'proper' breakfast throughout the year.



The Januaries of my memory consist of clattering pots being brought from the back of cupboards, steamed windows, and the bright, warm scents of cooking citrus contrasting gloriously with the icy, crisp outdoor air of mid-winter. It always seemed like the perfect sensory antidote for minds made heavy and foggy after festive overindulgence.



This year, we agreed I could take part in the process. Not because I plan to make my own anytime soon (mum always ensures everyone has a good sized jar) but perhaps just because it felt about time.


I brought Seville oranges – the variety necessary for authentic marmalade – and un-waxed lemons from Tattie Shaws; one of Edinburgh’s best greengrocers. The night before we were to make it, we gathered all the equipment, washed and boiled the fruit, and consulted mum’s ‘recipe’.


The recipe she uses was passed to her from a friend’s mother-in-law, who originally discovered it many decades ago, on a scrap of paper found inside the oven of their newly purchased farmhouse. The mysterious origins of the recipe are part of what makes it special.


Mum, who is an artist, memorialized the recipe on an illustrated greetings card, published as part of a series in the ‘90s. She still refers back to this card when making marmalade, every year. Like all good recipes, only a vague outline of events are provided, giving the reader a sense of what should happen and how things should taste, but without being prescriptive. Thus, the resultant marmalade cannot help but be unique and a direct reflection of its’ maker’s preferences. Indeed, after some 30 years of making this marmalade, mum has altered the recipe to fit her own taste and the limitations of their tiny cottage kitchen.



After a few of hours of cooking, the oranges were tender enough ‘to pierce with a straw’, and were left to cool until the following day. After breakfast, with coffee to hand, we set to scooping out the pulp, slicing the rind, and creating the extraordinarily aromatic puree. This involved smooshing (technical term) the pulp through a fine sieve until only a dry mass of pips and fibre were left – surprisingly hard work!


As we worked, the sounds and scents evoked nostalgic emotion, and mum began to talk about the significance of passing hand-knowledge from mother to daughter:


“I’m well aware that nowadays you can learn how to do anything just by looking at YouTube on your phone, but learning directly from someone is a totally different experience. It is the difference between seeing and hearing a bird on a video, and witnessing it while walking in the woods. In person, there is a direct relation between you and the bird and the experience takes on a much deeper significance.”


She explained that in learning directly from someone, much more is transmitted than just the facts of a recipe. I could understand this as we worked; being aware of the intangible knowledge being conveyed, and a new bond being created between us. All my childhood memories of listening to and smelling the marmalade making process were manifesting in practical experience that I was being given permission to own. It felt like being handed an inheritance.



Mum expressed a suspicion that many people were no longer really learning important practical skills like cooking and gardening, because of the false assurance that the know-how is readily available online whenever needed. But knowing these skills by hand and body, as opposed to just theoretically, results in a completely different appreciation of the products, places and people you may be working with.


After many years of marmalade making, mum can tell when the oranges & lemons are good quality, or when the marmalade needs to stop boiling; not because of some objective standard or instruction, but because she understands the nature of what she is working with. What I learned from her during our day together will stay with me for the rest of my life. And even though my own marmalade will undoubtedly be different to hers, she will be with me every time I make it.