Kitchen stories: Oranges are the only fruit

Like most avid marmalade makers, Dr Yen-Chung Chong’s methods are very particular. The retired biochemist, based in Brighton first squeezes the juice from Sicilian blush oranges and some lemons. Then he filters the liquid overnight through a jelly bag, reboils the debris with water and adds hand-cut rind. The liquids and zest are boiled with white cane sugar and home-made Seville orange pectin; finally, he pours in campari.

This quirky recipe won Dr Chong the “double-gold” laurels at last year’s World’s Original Marmalade Awards, held annually in Cumbria. Established in 2006 by Jane Hasell-McCosh, this sticky celebration has shown that home cooks and small artisan makers are doing much to change a delicacy that has been made in Britain for more than 300 years, but has made little progress save for switching from a dinner-table treat to a breakfast toast staple.

“I love marmalade and I really wanted to do something to try and improve its quality,” Hasell-McCosh says. “Amazingly, it’s taken on a life all of its own. Last year we had over 800 entries.” British shops sell Seville oranges in the last three weeks of January, so the festival is held over a weekend in mid-February at Hasell-McCosh’s stately home, Dalemain Mansion, crammed for two days with tables laden with amber- and russet-coloured jars.

Hasell-McCosh receives entries from all over the world, including a yuzu marmalade from Japan, which is “definitely an acquired taste”. To meet demand, she has added three new categories to the competition – International, Inventive and Family Affair. All of which might sound a little eccentric, until you realise that Hasell-McCosh is a natural marmalade marketing genius. Amateurs can enter myriad groups, from Military and Clergy to Bed and Breakfast. The entry money goes to charity.

Everyone from Michael Bond (author of the Paddington Bear books) to manufacturers such as Thursday Cottage are involved. As Pam Corbin, judge and author of The River Cottage Handbook No 2: Preserves, says: “it’s a marvellous meeting place for marmalade makers, and it’s gaining momentum year on year.”

Jonathan Miller, a buyer at Fortnum & Mason, is also interested. “Fortnum’s wants to encourage small niche makers who use small-batch, open-pan methods,” he says. “Last year, the festival’s artisan category had some brilliant marmalades including a kumquat marmalade from Museu de la Confitura in Spain and a Wake-Up Marmalade made with a little chilli from Wild & Fruitful in Cumbria.” The latter is now sold in Fortnum’s, alongside Ludlow Food Centre’s dark Lady Windsor’s Marmalade, made with molasses.

Everyone who enters gets feedback. Lord Henley, who entered the Peers & Political category, managed to improve his marmalade to such a degree that last year he won his group prize, beating a Scottish MP. Victor Gubbins, ex-Royal Dragoons and winner of last year’s best Military marmalade, is not afraid of the strong competition involved, even within his own household: “As my wife also enters the festival, I make my marmalade after she’s gone to bed.”

The range of methods is extraordinary, from the traditional formula of cooking whole Seville oranges to simmering the cut peel in an Aga oven. “I still find it amazing that just by cooking citrus fruit and sugar in a pan you get such variety and complexity,” Miller says. Clearly, this is just the start of a British marmalade renaissance.

The 2011 festival runs February 12-13 (entries must be in by February 7);

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