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Marmalade season is upon us

Posted on February 03, 2017

Founder of the School, Alison Swan Parente, shares her experience of making the seasonal favourite, marmalade ...

There have only been a couple of years in my adult life when I haven't made marmalade; let's just say that it takes a lot to stop me. I always make too much, and the three days that it takes are exhausting. I often leave it a little bit late, and by about January 20th I get anxious. I order a box of Seville oranges from the farm shop and then horde them in a corner waiting for a free day to just materialise, which it obviously doesn't.

By the beginning of February they are looking leathery and neglected. Chastened, I visit the local greengrocer to pick up grapefruit, lemons, clementines, blood oranges, a couple of limes and a pomelo or two. My ingredients are the greatest possible variety of citrus fruit with the exception of bergamot oranges, which I think make marmalade taste like joss-sticks smell. You can see how I make too much. On the way home I swing by the supermarket, a rarity for me, to get preserving sugar, maybe about 10 bags.

Then the assembly of the batterie de cuisine. A very sharp knife is essential and also a kind of paddle shaped serrated knife that is for scooping out vacherin cheese from its wooden box - ideal for pith-work. An ancient electric lemon squeezer, a huge chopping board, an empty, clean small plastic dustbin, a huge square of cheesecloth, catering size stock pans and a steady nerve.

Actually, there is no recipe and every year is different. First there is the halving of every fruit and squeezing and measuring the juice. Then the pith is scraped from every half and tied into the cheesecloth with the pips. The remaining rind is cut into shreds, and how this is done very much depends on the mood of the kitchen, who has been dragooned to help and how old they are. Before children and under scrutiny there were regular golden shred-style slithers and my index finger burned from the pressure of slicing. When the children were small the peel was flung into the magimix and roughly blitzed and really no one seemed to notice. Teenagers secretly enjoyed the teamwork, but the slices got coarser and coarser as their attention spans wavered. I seem to be back to the elegant slivers these days.

Who knows why I then let the peel soak overnight in water into which has been lowered the pectin-laden bag of pips and pith? My late mother, my sister, my French sister-in-law (champion of marmalade) are all metaphorically looking over my shoulder in a not altogether benign way. Maybe I've left out a vital stage, maybe the dilution is wrong. The next morning the liquid is divided into the pans, the warmed sugar added and dissolved and the, let's face it, ordeal begins. First the scramble to the attic to get the jam jars, the desperate search for lids, the sterilising in the oven, the lining up on newspaper.

I am lucky enough to have an Aga, which has a mind of its own. A rolling boil is hard to achieve and control; constant vigilance is necessary. Only very late in life have I discarded the jam thermometer in favour of the wrinkle test, but even this necessitates piling saucers up in the freezer and recruiting a committee to see if they can see wrinkles that I can't. And never once, in the far too many years that I have been making marmalade, have I let it get to a proper setting point the first time round. Which is why my marmalade takes three days. It has been poured into the jars in the afternoon and by late evening all hope that it is going to set properly has been lost. Every jar goes back into the saucepan the following morning and takes a mysteriously short time to reach a proper set, which it always does. The marmalade, every year a different colour, every year a different level of sweetness, is poured back into the jars, which are wiped down and sealed and labelled. The year can properly begin.

Interested in making your preserves? Take a look at our selection of preserve courses.

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