a bittersweet and brillig tale


It must have been 1996 when I first tried to make Seville orange marmalade. I was still at Drama school and living at the far end of Camden Town (which meant it was really Mornington Crescent) in a flat so near the railway line it seemed to lean slightly with every passing train. Other than the intrusion by the 5 32 from Euston (then the 6 02, the 6 32…) it was a great flat, small but well-formed, the top floor of a townhouse renovated by a young architect called Glynn. It was intended to be home, but then his new girlfriend refused to get used to the trains, or the stairs, or the backside of Camden, so they went to live at her flat. He didn’t want to rent it out properly, so the flat was sitting empty. Glynn worked with my best friend Joanna, and I just happened to pass by at the office at right moment. No contract, a promise I would move out if things changed and a gesture of a rent: the flat was mine.

The kitchen, which was in the corner of the living room, was small but extremely practical, as was a big table, that also functioned as a work surface. The table was surrounded by comfy but odd, ugly stacking chairs which looked like they would be more at home in a garden. ‘Bloody Hell, these are Birtoia chairs‘ said a friend’s older boyfriend one evening. He then went on to explain that the chair I was sitting on was one of the most recognized achievements of mid-century modern design. ‘Bloody beautiful‘ he said. I nodded in full agreement and served everyone more food, which was probably roasted vegetables with goats cheese –  from 95 – 99 I made a lot of roasted vegetables with goats cheese – the sound of trains cutting through the wrong end of Camden town..

I bought the 4 lb of Seville oranges from the market on Inverness street, a special order. ‘You know these aren’t eaters don’t you love? said the stall holder. I must have told him I was making marmalade, because he made me promise I would bring him a jar before he tipped the bright orange contents of the crate into two bags. I bought sugar from a shop nearby and then carried my 12 lb project back along Camden high street, past the tube, the Worlds End pub (which smelt like the world’s end), Woolworth’s, right into Mornington street so I could pass the coffee roasters and left into Mornington Terrace.


My mum is a good and committed marmalade maker, principally because my dad is a good and committed marmalade eater. Of course she eats it too! But mostly she makes it for Dad. For as long as I can remember, at some point in January my mum processes enough Seville oranges for my dad to have a jar of marmalade a week plus more for us kids and guests. Growing up I watched and helped enough – stirring, testing, getting in the way, putting the waxy circle on each jar, sticking labels on the jars – to imagine the recipe would be absorbed as if by kitchen osmosis.

Alone in Camden town with 4 lbs of oranges and double the amount of sugar, it did cross my mind I should call mum. But these were the days before free minutes and Skype cook-alongs. I had no home phone and my heavy-weight Nokia was probably dead. I just bulldozed on, I don’t think I even had a proper recipe. The initial steps, came easily, like your fingers remembering all the scales even though it’s 18 years since you played the piano, or your lips the words to the first two verses of a poem you learned at junior school. ‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves, Did gyre and gimble in the… Halve, squeeze, remove pith and pips but reserve in a piece of muslin (or old tights), chop the peel into moons. Then came the soaking. But was it with or without the sugar? And was it really necessary?


Patience is something I often lack in the kitchen. When I decide to make something, cake, soup, marmalade, pickles, three-day cured beef, I want immediate satisfaction and ideally to be eating whatever I’ve made for the next meal. This is fine when it comes to cake or soup, less so when it comes to recipes that involve the words soak for 24 hours, or leave covered or three days without touching. Without my mum or a recipe reminding me that there was a very good reason for the soaking and waiting, I just continued bulldozing. I boiled and boiled the contents of the pan it until it looked like angry lava and the flat felt like a citrus steam room that smelt of toffee orange.

I didn’t have nearly enough jars for the several liters of amber syrup I boiled up, so some was flushed away immediately, along with my guilt. The rest was poured into jars without a funnel which meant much of it dribbling down the counters and across the table of my well-formed kitchen. The jars were put in the cupboard.  I might have managed to use up one jar, pouring it over buttered toast and then watching it flood the plate, tipping it over yogurt and pretending marmalade syrup might become a thing. The jars got pushed to the very back of the cupboard. The girlfriend didn’t change her mind about the trains. She did however change her mind about Glynn, or Glynn changed his mind about her. Either way, I had to give up the flat.  The day I left, the jars left sticky rings in the cupboard. I then left the jars and another dose of shame, in a skip next to the railway line.


For years I had absolutely no desire to make marmalade. I’d happily eat it at my parents – my dad keeping a possessive eye on his pot as it was passed around the table – but I didn’t want anything to do with citrus pips and pans. Even when I moved to Rome ten years ago and citrus trees became everyday (although far from ordinary to my northern european eyes) and bitter orange windfalls, squashed like citrus road kill, marked the streets near my flat, I wasn’t tempted.

Then a few years back, I was tempted again, and encouraged by Vincenzo, a Sicilian for whom citrus is ordinary and essential, and who loves bitter orange marmalade as much as my dad. This time I did have a recipe, but from a sugar cautious friend, which meant the marmalade was more of a compote. There was a slight sense of déjà vu as I poured the amber mixture into the jars. It was fine, nice even and we ate most of it. Later there was lemon marmalade, another recipe from a friend, the quantities of which got lost in translation which meant it didn’t really set properly either. This was fine too and it was poured valiantly over everything, especially lemon cake, which was good and made it all feel worth while.


Then this time last week I walked up to the Giardino Degli Aranci, a small park shaded by orange trees on the Aventine hill. It is just minutes from our flat in Testaccio, but feels like another world: calm, shady and with an ideal viewpoint from which to observe this extraordinarily beautiful city. Turning away from the view, I noticed the dark green trees and the grass below were blobbed with orange. Marmalade crossed my mind.

Actually the seed had been planted at christmas, when I spent a nice part of one afternoon looking at a new cookbook of  mum’s all about marmalade. One picture in particular struck me, a big pan of bright orange chopped peel, in it suspended the muslin bag of pith and seeds, a practical and beautiful picture. It caught mum’s eye too, a serious marmalade maker swayed by a picture and new recipe (it is pretty much what she does anyway, give or take a very good tip.) Back in Rome I asked my fruit and veg guys to get me some bitter oranges, but there was always a good reason why they forgot. Then I went up to the orange garden and saw the oranges. We passed by the garden again few days later on our way back from somewhere, Vincenzo waiting in the stick- gear panda in the carpark, me with a big canvas bag. As I said, they were windfalls.

Sarah Randell’s recipe begins with an excellent instruction – put the radio on. Which I did. I would like to expand this instruction to: put the radio on (quietly) make a cup of tea, sit at the table and read through the recipe, twice. This is not because it is particularly difficult or complicated recipe, but because there are quite a few steps, each filled with tips and details which make all the difference. The sort of tips and details you could well miss if – like me – you tend to bulldoze through and next thing you know your hands are sticky with orange – which is a lovely way to be –  and your glasses are steamy and you can’t get a proper look and the recipe page or screen on the other side of the kitchen meaning you miss the most important word. Once you have read twice, turn the radio up, finish your cup of tea and begin.


I haven’t enjoyed making something so much for ages. Oranges are inherently joyful, simply taking one in your hand, scratching the flesh so the scent is liberated and your nail oily, is a tonic – unless you are a girl I was at school with, who found even the thought of the smile of orange they used to make us suck on during half-time of Netball matches so horrendous she hid in the changing room toilets. For most though, washing, squeezing, chopping , slicing and cooking a large quality of oranges is a messy, laborious, sticky jolt of orange joy. Go and make marmalade should be written at the bottom of doctors prescriptions as a cure of sorts: marmalade against the strain of modern life, conserving for health, citrus therapy or some such thing.

As I poured the marmalade into the jars  – I still didn’t have enough jars – I was transported back to Mornington Terrace, and that January afternoon in 1996 and my 23 year old self, insecure yet full of myself, trying to get the sticky marmalade syrup into the damn jars without a proper ladle and it running down the counter and across the table surrounded by important chairs. Things got sticky here in Rome too, but then I wiped the jars and was transported back to Kirkwick avenue and helping mum in the chaotic, loving, bickering and sticky atmosphere of our family kitchen. Memory stirring English style marmalade, made with Roman oranges, for a Sicilian:  it felt like a sort of coming together, which is something  I have been thinking a lot about lately. But much more important than my amateur philosophizing, is the marmalade, which set perfectly and is delicious, especially on hot buttered toast.


Seville Orange marmalade

Adapted from a recipe by Sarah Randell from her beautiful book Marmalade: a bittersweet cookbook

  • 1 kg Seville oranges
  • 1 fat lemon
  • 2 kg sugar

You need a big pan and a  30cm/ 30cm square of gauze or muslin and 6 or 7 340 ml jars

Put the radio on. Make a cup of tea and sit at the table and read through the recipe so you know exactly what lies ahead.

Cut the oranges in half, flicking obvious pips into the gauze. Squeeze the oranges and then put the juice into a large bowl or the pan you are going to use. Put and flesh or pips from the squeezer into the gauze.

Cut the orange halves into quarters – scraping any membrane away and putting it into the gauze – then cut the peel into uniform shreds – thin or chunky depending on your preference. Put the peel into the pan with the juice. Gather the gauze into a money bag pouch and tie with string (leaving a long end that will tie the gauze to the pan handle during cooking).  Add 2.25 litres of water to the pan and the gauze pouch. Cover the pan with cling film and leave in a cool place overnight.

The next day if you have used a bowl, tip everything into a pan. Tie the gauze pouch to the handle with the string so it hangs just submerged in the liquid. Bring everything to a simmer over a low – medium heat, then simmer until the pieces of orange is really soft – they should squash easily between two fingers – this should take about an hour and a half.

Once the peel is soft, remove the pouch, pressing it gently against the side of the pan first to extract as much juice as possible. Put the pouch into a bowl to cool for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, squeeze the lemon juice into the pan, then add the sugar. Once the pouch is coolish, squeeze the last of the pectin rich juice from it and put it in the pan – you may need rubber gloves. You can now discard the pouch, it has done its job.

Preheat the oven to 140° put the – very clean – jars on a baking tray and then in the oven to sterilize for 20 minutes. Put a two saucers in the freezer.

Keep stirring the pan to help dissolve the sugar – this is an important stage, it will take about 15 mins. Once the sugar is dissolved bring the marmalade to a rolling boil and boil for 20 – 25 minutes or until it has reached the setting point for which you should use the wrinkle test. This means putting a blob of marmalade on a cold saucer, putting the saucer back in the freezer for a minute and then dragging your finger through the blob. The marmalade is ready when the blob wrinkles and remains pretty much split in two and doesn’t run back into a whole.

When the marmalade is ready, take the pan from the heat and let it sit for 15 minutes which will help the peel disperse more evenly. Use a measuring jug, ladle or funnel to transfer the marmalade into the warm jars. Seal the jars immediately and leave the to cool. Give the jars a final wipe before labeling. Keep the jars in a cool dry place, where it will keep for over a year.





Filed under bitter oranges, conserves, marmalade, winter recipes

69 responses to “a bittersweet and brillig tale

  1. Fiona

    Great post, as always. Coming to Rome week after next (16th) for a week. Must meet for coffee at least. Staying in Testaccio (I so miss my old life). I owe you a lunch too….

  2. Lynn

    I love you story! Sounds very familiar to some of my own 🙂 Definitely going to see about finding some of these oranges to give this recipe a try!

  3. I made my marmalade on Tuesday from a Sarah Raven recipe whilst on the phone to the bloke who sorts things like my pension out. By the time he’d finished wittering I’d potted it up. 2 1lb jars and 2 tiddlers – one for a friend and the rest for me which will last till next January….luckily the husband HATES marmalade :0) Lovely post – brought back my first jam or should I say toffee making attempts!

  4. Oh you and your beautiful writing Rachel, it is almost making me late for school pick up. I like this post; the descriptions of Mornington Crescent, the flat, the trains, the marmalade, but most of all the coming together bit. That’s lovely, just that bit, right there.
    I wish more than anything I had the money for that writing course in June. Oh well..

    • rachel

      I hope I didn’t make you too late for school – gosh your girls must be getting big now, time flies is such a cliche, but it is true. x

  5. I love Orange Marmalade, will have to try!

  6. Margit Van Schaick

    I do love your childhood memories of home, as well as your reports of the memories you are creating now! Gorgeous pictures, too, of the marmalade, which I love probably as much as your Dad and Vincenzo. Reminds me to try to get a big supply of organic oranges(as many as I can afford) and get busy—

    • rachel

      Hello Margit, I hope you did get busy as I’d like to think of a fellow marmalade lover being well stocked for the year ahead

  7. Nadia

    I love this post, especially as I am just about to make two batches of dark chunky marmalade courtesy of Delia and sevilles fresh from the countryside. They smell like something else and I can’t wait. Here’s the recipe in case you’re interested. http://www.deliaonline.com/recipes/type-of-dish/preserve/dark-chunky-marmalade.html

  8. I have a cat called Marmalade. My Mum used to make marmalade with oranges and lemons. This recipe looks a little like hers, wish I could make it but there are no citrus trees out here on the prairies.. This marmalade looks divine – nice and chunky.

  9. Giulia

    It reminds me so much of my peculiar relationship with jams and marmalades and my mum’s effortless summer production!

  10. Hi Rach, it is fun and revealing and rather wondrous to see the long long thread of connections, over time and distance, thanks to a simple recipe. it’s just as valuable as the recipe itself.
    on the practical side—never thought about sterilizing the jars in the oven—terrific tip!

  11. Betta

    This post is amazing, I loved reading it over a cup of tea. Brava rach 🙂

  12. Ooh and as an aside we had a majestic oak tree again tonight, with mash and onion gravy. Blooming’ marvellous. I am forever in your debt for that one alone. x

  13. Laura

    I have been following your blog for quite a while and always liked your writing, but this post may well become my favorite of all your pieces. It is so well written and I really enjoyed reading it. I am really looking forward your book. I also had a particularly disappointing experience with orange marmelade in the past (think I overcooked it and made huge orange marmelade candies in jars, many huge orange candies…). I may give it another try though with your recipe.

    • rachel

      Hello Laura, and what a lovely comment to find on this cold feb night (sorry it has taken me so long to respond). I do hope you try again, this recipe is a good starting point. lets me know Rx

  14. I can’t imagine anything more heavenly than marmalade lovingly made in a Roman kitchen with oranges from the Aventine.

  15. laura

    Thank you, Rachel, for the generous share, exquisite, engrossing descriptions and gorgeous photos! What a treat all round!

  16. When I read your posts I feel transported.
    I have never been one for marmalade (I heard you gasp!), candied citrus peels etc. but as the years go on, I seem to appreciate and almost crave these flavors more and more… marmalade may be happening sometimes soon. You make it soundso therapeutic, we all need that sometimes.

    • rachel

      That is lovely to hear. I too love candied peel. As for the marmalade, maybe you could start with a small batch, say half these quantities, and then put it in small jars that can be eaten little by little or given away as gifts. I hope you try x

  17. Imogen Morgan

    Thank you Rachel: I retired 18 months ago and I’ve tried a lot of things somehow life never had time for when I was working. So this time last year, I made…..Seville orange toffee!! Your post brought it all back, especially my ( grown up) children manfully trying to chew their way through my product on toast. But this year, I’m at it again. The pan is on the stove as I’m writing and the kitchen in frosty Birmingham is filled with the perfume of Italy and the childish joy of burnt sugar on the stove . Wish me luck!!

  18. Lovely how you did it.! I want one of your jars..:p

  19. Rachel, your bittersweet and brillag tale made excellent company for my dinner, together with my large bowl of fresh green, broccoli sprouts, carrots, tomatos and hard boiled eggs. I had such a good time reading it didn’t feel like dinner alone. Those jars of marmalade seem to be very comfortable on your wooden table! I think they have found a good home!

  20. This is lovely. A coming together of your worlds. And yes,’ make marmalade’ should be a prescription – it is deliberately fastidious and meditative and democratic isn’t it? All the good people make it xxx

  21. FJ

    Hi Rachel. Have just been given 15 kilos (!) of locally grown oranges by one of my students..local being in Abruzzo. How important are bitter oranges for this recipe? My oranges are sharp but edible..what do you think??
    And lovely writing as always!

    • rachel

      Hi Fiona,
      What a lovely present! This recipe is for bitter oranges, hence the high proportion of sugar. I am sure it could be adapted for sweeter oranges but I am cautious about suggesting quantities as I am a novice as I know the proportions are important for the setting point. Have a look at Sarah Randell’s site http://potofmarmalade.uk (which is beautiful) I am sure she will have some tips. Your kite is going to smell wonderful all best Rx

  22. The marmalade looks amazing and I really love your writing! I’m new to blogging and I really enjoy your posts. It would mean a lot if you could check out my blog.


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  24. Jayne Callan

    I made your marmalade yesterday! First time ever. My boyfriend loves marmalade and I’ve never had the confidence to do it before. I followed your instructions to the tee and read them carefully and a couple of times first. The marmalade is marvellous. I am so chuffed! Beautiful post. Thank you for the inspiration.

  25. The time spent inside the giardino degli aranci is one of the most beautiful memories I have of my last visit to Rome. Memories of making marmalade – those I don’t have. But reading your story and recipe makes me eager to create some soon.

  26. I love making marmalade and your recipe is just the most wonderful simple one I have ever encountered. I have a Pomelo and a few blood oranges on my kitchen counter that I will turn into marmalade later this week and use your recipe idea. Just lovely.

  27. Maria

    Such lovely, evocative writing. I love it.

  28. There are so many blog posts about marmalade making (one of mine is among them, somewhere) but yours is quite the best. You’ve encouraged me to have another go at a couple-of-days job. Like you, I’m impatient. But first….I’ve run out of jars – again.

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  30. Loved this post from start to finish, even though the likelihood of making homemade marmalade is rather less than zero chez nous, because a) it contained a Jabberwocky reference speaking to one of the few arenas in which my father and I could find agreement in my youth, and b) because the source of your oranges is exactly where Amy and I got engaged.

  31. I will have to try, I like Orange Marmalade!

  32. Sara

    thanks for the recipe and post! I have made orange marmalade before, with varying success. Tried out your method and it came out great. Very tasty, not too sweet. Perfect.

  33. Laura Del Favero

    Hi Rachel!
    There is a wonderful short story written in 1943 by Lewis Padgett called ‘Mimsy Were the Borogoves’. The poem plays an interesting and somewhat sad role in the story. I’ve been fascinated with that poem since reading ‘Through the Looking Glass’ and was thrilled to see you mention it here!
    In other news, I made the Orange and Almond cake from another post today and it is amazing! Love hearing your stories, thank you!

  34. pollopicu

    Seville orange marmalade was the bane of my existence during the passover holiday. I was assigned the responsibility of making quite a few pounds of jams, jellies and marmalades for a large group at the Jewish retreat center where I work as one of the chefs, and truth be told I’d never made marmalade before..never had to, because before working at the retreat I was a savory chef. The marmalade I chose to make, at the suggestion of my boss, was a recipe from a Rachel Saunders book, and it was a three day process..there were says I’d wake up at 3:45 am for work, and sit in front of my computer screen fighting back big chunks of tears not knowing how the marmalades would come out, afraid of disappointing everyone who was expecting fresh preserves. Thank goodness they all turned out well, but it left me quite traumatized. Your story reminded me of that. I enjoyed reading it, and my name is Rachel too. 3 Rachels (one whom I momentarily despised) all with seville orange marmalade in common..how funny that it continues to haunt and mock me.

    • rachel

      Hi rachel,

      Good story. Sorry about the haunting. How do you feel when you actually see a jar now? Do you taste?. I now convinced Rachels come in threes. I was one of three in the same class at school (there were in others). Having never met a rachel here in Rome, I met two within a week last week (we were all at the same event) and now this. Thanks for reading along, all best Rx

      • pollopicu

        Now when I see a jam of marmalade I appreciate all the work that goes into it, and if I were to help myself to a bit, I would eat every drop it, and probably even lick my plate. It actually taught even more about being a responsible eater/consumer of foods. The Jewish retreat center i work at is a sustainable community, so it lends itself to the philosophy.

  35. so many bitter oranges, so little time…

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