Ivan Day’s bottom jaw is working unnaturally and his face looks pained. The food historian, encyclopedically versed in many gastronomic matters, is sampling a smidgen of marmalade, upon which he is about to pass judgment. “The peel,” he says thoughtfully, “is the wrong side of al dente.”

Here at the 2014 World’s Original Marmalade Awards at Dalemain Mansion in Cumbria, an array of judges, myself and Day included, has been tasting a year’s breakfasts’ worth of the sticky condiment, beloved not just of Paddington Bear but also this FT reporter. Knowing that I make my own marmalade and preserves, Jane Hasell-McCosh, founder of the awards, first invited me to judge three years ago and I’m back again for a second bite.

Established in 2005 as part of the Dalemain Marmalade Festival, the contest began with 50 entries, judged in a somewhat Heath Robinson manner. The festival still has what Day calls its “eccentric side” (witness the Marmalashes, in which Australian marmalades battle English) but the judges are all experienced marmalade makers, chefs, writers or food industry insiders, including a buyer from sponsor Fortnum & Mason, which sells a handful of the winners.

Our group is tasting the two “business” categories – “artisan”, which has to be made in an open pan and sold commercially, and “bed and breakfast”, which is made and served by B&B hosts. Within each category are a number of sub-classes: by the time we leave our grand wood-panelled tasting room at Dalemain, we will have sized up more than 500 pots over the two judging days that precede the festival proper this weekend.

Previous winners at Dalemain’s marmalade museum © Paul Alexander Knox

Verdicts on other entries (“vile”, “urine” and “drain water”) are less euphemistic than Day’s. My judging partner (at least two people sampled every pot), chef and food writer Dan Lepard, even spits out a couple in disgust. “It’s easy to make jam but it’s hard to make good jam,” observes head judge and veteran preserve-maker Pam Corbin.

Each pot, which must be citrus-based, is marked out of 20. First, we assess appearance – colour, translucency, peel distribution. Then comes aroma. Does the marmalade smell of what it claims to be, and does the scent last more than a nanosecond? Texture follows – has it been cooked to the correct setting point and consistency? Last, and most important – accounting for nine of the points – is taste.

Among some stunning entries is a “deep-rooted tree marmalade” from South Korea, which has a tangerine layer on the bottom, and yuzu fruit, black tea and gold leaf on the top. One of my favourites in the “interesting additions” category is Mandymite, boldly pairing Seville orange with yeast extract and salt, while one judge summarises a spicy entry as “Brick Lane in a bottle”. “It’s wonderful to see people thinking out of the box,” Corbin says.

The awards have grown in popularity – this year’s 500 entries is a 25 per cent increase on 2013 – but also prestige. “In the beginning it was very amateur,” Day says. “But now the industry sees this as the benchmark for quality.”

Checking the appearance © Paul Alexander Knox

That is corroborated by previous winners’ achievements. Victoria Cranfield used to be a lawyer but changed careers to make preserves and chutneys. She won a silver at the 2010 awards and, two years later, her pink grapefruit marmalade took home the double gold, the top prize.

Her company, Cranfields Foods, has won other accolades but she says it is these awards that gave her the biggest fillip. “[They] captured the imagination in a way the others didn’t,” she says. “We’ve doubled sales easily in the last three years and they’re two-thirds up since winning the 2012 award.” Last year Cranfields made 30,000 jars of preserves, of which 40 per cent were marmalades.

John Aglionby, Pam Corbin and Dan Lepard
Judges John Aglionby, Pam Corbin and Dan Lepard © Paul Alexander Knox

Joanna Morgan of Radnor Preserves entered the marmalade awards in 2009 as an amateur but says so many people wanted to try her produce she plunged into full-time production the following year. In 2013 she won three gold awards – for her Seville orange and crushed coriander, her Sicilian blood orange and her lime marmalades.

“At the moment I’m making it in my kitchen and it’s taking over my entire life,” she says. “I’m at the point of drawing up a business plan and looking for investors.”

It helps to free oneself from the short January season for Seville oranges, Morgan says; she made ruby red grapefruit and elderflower marmalade last summer and clementine and cointreau in the run-up to Christmas.

Both women refrain from expectation of wealth, despite their burgeoning reputations. “If you want to make a lot of money, don’t [do it],” Cranfield says. “If you want to have a great breakfast, do.”

For details of the World’s Original Marmalade Awards and Festival go to dalemainmarmaladeawards.co.uk.

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