Alice’s marmalade

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Either the well was very deep, or she fell very slowly, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her and to wonder what was going to happen next. First, she tried to look down and make out what she was coming to, but it was too dark to see anything; then she looked at the sides of the well, and noticed that they were filled with cupboards and book-shelves; here and there she saw maps and pictures hung upon pegs. She took down a jar from one of the shelves as she passed; it was labeled ‘ORANGE MARMALADE’, but to her great disappointment it was empty: she did not like to drop the jar for fear of killing somebody, so managed to put it into one of the cupboards as she fell past it.

From Chapter 1 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

This encounter between two of Oxford’s best-known creations is perhaps not too surprising, but we know that the jar snatched by Carroll’s heroine on her long fall to Wonderland cannot have contained Frank Cooper’s Oxford Marmalade. The company’s history informs us that the first batch (amounting to 76 lbs) was boiled up by Frank’s wife Sarah-Jane Cooper in 1874, while Lewis Carroll published his masterpiece in 1865.

Yet there are strong grounds for believing that the jar contained something very close to Cooper’s Oxford Marmalade. According to the recent World’s Classics edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, published by (who else?) Oxford University Press, it was Alice Liddell’s mother Lorinda who supplied the original recipe to the Coopers so they could sell the result in their grocery shop on the High Street. (Curiously, before moving into the grocery business, Frank Cooper was a hatter.)

As wife of the dean of Christ Church, Mrs Liddell took on the weighty task of supervising the manufacture of the college’s marmalade. Its bittersweet tang went down a treat with both dons (including C L Dodgson aka Lewis Carroll) and students. Possibly the empty jar was a tribute to its excellence.

Marmalade became such an integral part of the Oxford breakfast that students coined their own slang term for this sticky treat. In the Dorothy L Sayers detective yarn Clouds of Witness, Lord Peter Wimsey (an old Magdalen man) demands ‘squish’ for breakfast.

In subsequent years, the marmalade that originated with Mrs Liddell’s recipe became obligatory in the upper class larder.

Cooper’s Oxford Marmalade has displayed impressive longevity as a posh spread. It accompanied Robert Falcon Scott to the South Pole in 1912 and was consumed by James Bond in the novel From Russia with Love (1963). Since the label bears a royal warrant, it is reasonable to presume that Cooper’s Oxford Marmalade makes an appearance on Her Majesty’s toast.

Another statement on the label is slightly more tenuous. Though the product still declares itself to be ‘Oxford’ marmalade, it is partially manufactured in Spain. The current owner of Frank Cooper’s is Hain Celestial of Lake Success, New York. Christopher Hirst