Alice’s marmalade

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How Mrs Liddell’s recipe spread across the world… By Christopher Hirst

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 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 of 76 pounds was boiled up by Frank’s wife Sarah-Jane in 1874, while Lewis Carroll published his masterpiece in 1865.

Yet there are strong grounds for believing that Alice’s empty jar once contained something very close to Cooper’s Oxford Marmalade. The recent World’s Classics edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, published by (who else?) Oxford University Press, suggests that it was Alice Liddell’s mother Lorina 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.)

The dean of Christ Church was the great classicist Henry George Liddell – his name still appears on the spine of Liddell & Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon – and Mrs Liddell took on the weighty task of supervising the manufacture of the college’s marmalade. The 19th century saw a blossoming of marmalade due to the arrival of cheap sugar and its use as a breakfast spread came down from Scotland. In Oxford, most colleges produced their own marmalade and students coined a slang term for the sticky treat. The first recorded use of “squish”  was 1874. In the Dorothy L Sayers detective yarn Clouds of Witness (1926), Lord Peter Wimsey, an old Magdalen man, demands “squish” for breakfast.

According to a source quoted in C. Anne Wilson’s Book of Marmalade, “About the year 1870, a recipe was brought from a Perthshire manse by an Oxford don and presented to Mrs Cooper.” If it was in fact Mrs Liddell’s recipe, as her grandson insisted, its bittersweet tang went down well with both dons, including maths lecturer C.L. Dodgson aka Lewis Carroll, and students. Possibly, the empty jar was a tribute to its excellence. After passing the recipe on to the Coopers, Mrs Liddell may have been a stickler on quality control judging by student doggerel of the era:

I am the Dean, this is Mrs Liddell.
She plays first, I, second fiddle

In a curious parallel, Chivers did the same job providing marmalade in Cambridge with the assistance of cooks from Pembroke College. Lewis Carroll’s lifelong passion for marmalade is evident in an 1889 letter urging a colleague to collect from him a “little jar of Orange Marmalade”. “I have another, which I am consuming myself: and it is very good: and if yours is still on the premises when mine is finished, I won’t answer for the consequences.” This may have been his brother’s preserve, which Carroll promoted in Christ Church with a notice headed “To all lovers of Orange Marmalade.”
 In later years, the commercial version of Mrs Liddell’s preserve became world-renowned. Cooper’s Oxford Marmalade 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 now bears a royal warrant, it is reasonable to presume that Cooper’s makes an appearance on Her Majesty’s breakfast toast.

Another statement on the label is more tenuous. Though the product still declares itself to be “Oxford” marmalade, it is partially manufactured in Spain. The current owner of the Frank Cooper brand is Hain Celestial of Lake Success, New York. Did the company know what they were buying? Marmalade remains a bit of a mystery in the US. In online discussions, you occasionally get a baffled “What is it?” from across the Atlantic.

In 2002, the veteran reporter R.W. “Johnny” Apple sought to remedy this bafflement in the New York Times. “Properly made marmalade (which to my mind means dark and treacly stuff) has no peer as the crowning glory on a piece of hot, buttered toast.” He was ecstatic about a jar of 12-year-old homemade marmalade that his wife found at the back of their larder. Describing the contents as a “glistening. mahogany-coloured preserve,” Apple noted how “the bitterness of the oranges and the sweetness of the sugar had miraculously dissolved into a rich, syrupy harmony.”

Johnny Apple, whose book Far Flung and Well Fed is richly worth seeking out, would have been very welcome to a jar of Mrs Hirst’s well-matured marmalade if he had not departed for the great larder in the sky in 2006. Closely corresponding to Apple’s description, its profound depth of flavour is both startling and satisfying whether consumed on toast or a scrap of well-buttered sourdough. It is hard to think of anything that delivers the same jolt of pleasure to the palate.
There isn’t much you can do to improve marmalade on toast but occasionally I fell the urge to add very thin slices of farmhouse cheddar. This magical combination of sweet and savoury has a distinguished lineage. Membrillo, the grainy quince paste consumed with manchego and other hard cheeses in Spain, gave the name to our own marmalade.

The reason that the Hirst household has a small armada of marmalade jars maturing in a cupboard is that my wife doesn’t like it (“Too sticky”). Her annual production run is selfless to the point of martyrdom. It’s also tricky to think of ways of consuming marmalade after breakfast. During my spell as a newspaper columnist, I ran a competition for marmalade recipes – that is, recipes that include marmalade – in order to diminish our ever-expanding stock. Many entries suggested a certain amount of experimentation at the breakfast table. I can’t say that the combination of Marmite with marmalade holds great appeal.  (I recall a TV programme in which David Dimbleby insisted that marmalade was the perfect condiment with kippers.) The winner of my competition appears below. It’s an excellent pud though to tell the truth it made only a marginal dent in our stocks.

Bread and butter pudding with marmalade

10 thinnish slices of dry white bread (sourdough a couple of days old is perfect)
30g unsalted butter 
1 jar vintage marmalade
250ml whole milk
125ml double cream
3 eggs
50g castor sugar

Butter the slices of bread then spread with marmalade. Layer slices so they fill a baking dish. Beat together milk, cream, eggs and sugar with generous grating of nutmeg. Pour mixture over bread and leave for 1 hour to enable absorption. Bake pudding uncovered for 2 hours at 130 degrees fan, then 30 minutes at 180 degrees until top is crisp and brown.