Orwell’s extra-mature marmalade

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Christopher Hirst reports on how George Orwell’s marmalade recipe has finally gained appeal after 70 years

Coinciding with the arrival of Seville oranges in January, this year’s marmalade season was enlivened by a slow-simmering story concerning George Orwell. In 1946, the writer, best known for political essays like The Lion and the Unicorn, was commissioned by the British Council to write an article assessing our indigenous dishes. While praising items including Stilton, crumpets, apple dumplings and ‘of course, roast beef, Yorkshire pudding and horseradish sauce’, he expressed reservations about milk puddings and noted that ‘potatoes aside, vegetables seldom get the treatment they deserve’.
All well and good, except Orwell detoured from his generally sensible assessment of British cuisine to include recipes for plum cake, Welsh rarebit, Christmas pudding and orange marmalade. The last aroused the ire of a British Council editor, who insisted, ‘Bad recipe! – Too much sugar and water.’ For this reason, Orwell’s article was spiked for over 70 years and has only just been published by the British Council. Did his version of Britain’s favourite breakfast spread deserve this extended maturing? Judge for yourself. Here it is:

2 seville oranges
2 sweet oranges
2 lemons
8lbs (3.6 kilo) of preserving sugar
8 pints of water

Method. Wash and dry the fruit. Halve them and squeeze out the juice. Remove some of the pith, then shred the fruit finely. Tie the pips in a muslin bag. Put the strained juice, rind and pips into the water and soak for 48 hours. Place in a large pan and simmer for 1/2 hours until the rind is tender. Leave to stand overnight, then add the sugar and let it dissolve before bringing to the boil. Boil rapidly until a little of the mixture will set into a jelly when placed on a cold plate. Pour into jars which have been heated beforehand, and cover with paper covers.

On 12 February, a letter in The Times considered the controversial condiment. On one hand, it agreed with the British Council, ’Orwell’s marmalade needed clarification from him (surely it’s 6lb fruit to 8lb sugar).’ On the other hand, it insisted that ‘the British Council editors’ rejection of his essay missed the point. British cookery’s sparseness is its beauty and strength. Orwell’s Yorkshire pudding is as desirable as tempura and his Welsh rarebit as fine as fondue.’ This balanced assessment was co-signed by Jane Hasell-McCosh, founder of the Dalmain World Marmalade Awards, and Dan Lepard, who is a patron of the competition, which ‘this year drew 3,000 entries from more than 40 countries’. The letter further noted, ‘In May, [we] will launch Japan’s first festival of marmalade. This proves that marmalade is alive and vibrant.’
A few years ago, before the competition gained its current international appeal, the organisers included a media section to attract the attention of marmalade-making journalists. There were perhaps 20 entries, which were judged at a breakfast held at Fortnum & Mason’s store on Piccadilly. The entrants included Dan Lepard, author of The Handmade Loaf and other works on baking, and Christopher Hirst (ie me). After careful assessment by a table of well-matured marmalade afficionados, the winner was declared to be a certain C Hirst (ie me). Mr Lepard, who did not appear to be overwhelmingly pleased at the result, may care to know the secret of my success. Ingredients are 1.4 kilos Seville oranges, juice of two lemons, 3.4 litres water, 2.7 kilos preserving sugar. Orwell’s procedure should do the trick but use the freshest, juiciest Sevilles you can find. Slice the peel by hand into fine slivers (not chunks).
Curiously, the prize for this achievement was several jars of Fortnum & Mason marmalade, possibly the last thing that the home marmalade maker (who probably has a cupboard packed full of the stuff will require). Several years on from my sticky triumph, we have finally got round to sampling the F&M samples. They do over a dozen varieties. We didn’t taste them all but of the jars I received, a brand called Sir Nigel’s Vintage Marmalade (£4.95 for 340g) emerged as the closest to homemade. It is, however, questionable if this plutocratic pot would be to the taste of the great socialist George Orwell.

Photo credit: MichellePetersJones on VisualHunt /  CC BY-NC-ND