Granny Barry’s marmalade: splitting the atom requires less faffing about, but it’s sublime

I was given a basket of Seville oranges when they were in season by a friend from the country. It was thoughtful of her, even if she did have an ulterior motive. It seems she planted the tree for the sole purpose of making sure I would keep her supplied in marmalade, possibly for life. I’ve been making this particular recipe for Seville marmalade for a while now. It is much sought after, except by people who loathe marmalade.

For some reason, marmalade-haters are not shy in coming forward, unlike haters of other, milder home-made preserves who may choose to suffer in silence. Two enthusiastic jam and pickle makers I know used to press various jars on a relative every few months as a house gift. “Oh, how lovely,” the relative would say each time. “You shouldn’t have.” That took on a whole new meaning the day they were staying at her house and happened to open a high cupboard. They found a good 10 years’ worth of their bottled produce stashed in there, all of it untouched. It was like cracking open a time capsule, or a jam and chutney version of Hannibal Lecter’s basement.

I can see how it could happen. It is hard to refuse a homemade preserve – always made with love but not always very well. I’m grateful nobody makes choko pickle any more, once so ubiquitous. Just because there was a lot of it around didn’t mean it was any good, although it was a notch up from that budget family dish, choko in cheese sauce, if you had to pick. But really, why bother taking a vegetable that has no flavour and pickling it in the hope of making it interesting?

The choko is incapable of being interesting. It is serviceable at best. It’s something most rational people would only choose to eat if a nuclear attack or global plague wiped out every other foodstuff. The main reason Anglo-Australians used chokos so much and so badly in times past (I’m willing to concede other cultures might do a better job) was that everyone with a choko vine – and they were once a very popular disguise for the outside dunny – ended up with a glut of these bland, gluey versions of a squash. They had to palm them off on the people who’d been smart enough not to plant one.

Back to the Seville oranges. They left me in a bit of a jam, you could say. I’d been trying to cut back on sugar, but very few jams use as much sugar, proportionally, as traditional Seville marmalade because the fruit is so bitter. Given that sugar now has much the same rep as arsenic, pouring kilo after kilo into the preserving pot felt like a death wish. A new kind of white supremacy. I’m just glad the sugar police won’t be in the kitchen to witness the horror.

Still, aside from irresponsibly poisoning everyone with sucrose, I do love the process of making marmalade. I’ve seen simple recipes that pretty much just boil up the peel with sugar and water. Where’s the challenge there? Mine was handed on from my friend Jane’s English mother-in-law. It makes sublime marmalade, fills the kitchen with a lovely, bittersweet scent of citrus and is fearsomely complicated. I have to give all my attention to the two pages of closely handwritten instructions, in imperial measures, demanding the cook do all sorts of dark-arts manoeuvres with rinds and pips and lemon juice. Splitting the atom would require less faffing about.

Granny Barry’s Chunky Marmalade
There’s nothing as nice as ranks of gleaming jars of marmalade made by your own hand – if you like marmalade, that is. This recipe is courtesy of the late Rosemary Barry. I’ve changed her imperial measures to metric and made a few small clarifications. It’s still satisfyingly complicated. It helps to remember there’s a saucepan and there’s a preserving pan – two different things. It does make brilliant marmalade.

Makes approximately 12 big jars
2kg Seville oranges

3.9 litres cold water

3-4 lemons, depending on size, preferably unwaxed

4kg caster sugar

knob of butter

large preserving pan with lid

long wooden spoon

large measuring jug

mixing bowl

2-3 litre saucepan

12 largish preserving jars, sterilised

Choose similar-sized oranges. Scrub them thoroughly and place them whole in the large preserving pan with the water. Rinse the lemons (if using waxed lemons, scrub them well in hot water), halve them, extract the juice and set the juice aside. Place the lemon rinds in the pan with the oranges. Cover the pan with a close-fitting lid.

Bring to the boil and then simmer for three hours, until the orange peel is soft enough for a wooden spoon handle to pierce it easily. Allow to cool. (I usually do up to this step the night before and just leave it all in the pan.)

Remove the lemon rinds on to a plate and put the oranges into a bowl. Pour the liquid into a measuring jug. You should now have about 1.5-2 litres of liquid. Remove any pips and pour about 300ml of the liquid into the saucepan, pouring the rest back into the preserving pan.

Scrape the pulp from the lemon rinds and add it to the preserving pan. Add the rinds to the saucepan.

Taking the oranges one at a time, halve them, squeeze out the pips and put the pips into the saucepan, then cut the oranges into quarters and slice thinly or thickly, as you prefer. Add the orange pieces to the preserving pan. In the saucepan, boil the lemon rind and pips rapidly until reduced to about 150ml, strain and add the liquid to the preserving pan, together with the reserved lemon juice.

Bring the orange mixture in the preserving pan to the boil slowly, adding the sugar gradually and stirring well. When all the sugar has dissolved, increase the heat and boil rapidly for 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Test for set after 20 minutes, but this quantity will probably take longer. When setting point is reached, remove from the heat, stir in the knob of butter to clear the scum, and leave to stand for 25-35 minutes. This ensures the peel does not all rise to the top of the jars.

Pour into warmed, sterilised jars and seal with warmed twist-off lids.

Fill the jars well; the marmalade will shrink as it cools.