Saturday, 11 February 2012

Spanish sun in a winter kitchen

Even the bronze ducks look chilly......

As the snow settles thickly on stone walls,  submerging the early daffodils,  depressing the  cheerful cyclamen and causing robins and blackbirds to stop their optimistic nest building and hover, hungrily hopeful, by the kitchen window,  the time is right to warm the house with   marmalade making.  Quite apart from the pleasure of slicing orange peel and squeezing the gelatinous juice out of the muslin bag of flesh and pips, it is satisfying to know that every pot of marmalade will be eaten.

The combination of snow and marmalade brought back memories of celebrating our 40th wedding anniversary on our honeymoon island of Majorca, when we stayed in a little house amongst the orange trees on a finca in the northern hillside town of Soller.  (See Valiant Women: notes from an orange grove). 

Whilst we were there, the temperature plummeted far below the December norm and the surrounding hills were covered with snow, an occurrence so unusual that the local roads became clogged with people from Palma and other towns collecting the white stuff in cooler boxes to carry back to show their urban neighbours.

The finca is owned by a sculptor and his elegant wife, who combine farming a wide variety of oranges, grapes and other fruits with providing bed,  breakfast and dinner for up to a dozen people and producing their own marmalade in pretty hexagonal jars with stylish labels. The marmalade is delicious, but a far cry from the dark, chunky wake-up call stuff that is our breakfast preserve of choice.  The Finca Ca'Sant marmalade is more of a compote of finely minced sweet oranges, and indeed it transpired in conversation with our hosts that the Mallorquin consider the bitter Seville orange not worth bothering with - for marmalade or anything else for that matter.

Silent and snowy valley
But back to the snowy hills of Gloucestershire, where worktops are cleared, jars are brought down from the attic and the preserving pan from the top of the larder. Remembering the comment made by one son some years ago,  watching me standing hot and sticky over bubbling preserving pans at 10 pm, that 'marmalade can be bought in shops these days, mum,'  I decide to cost out the exercise this year.   

Also recalling my 5th form domestic science lessons under the rigorous eye of Mrs Blampied, I include a generous amount for fuel in addition to the cost of the organic Seville oranges and lemons and Fairtrade sugar.  I do not cost my time or the glass jars, which have been accumulated over years of  recycling duty.

The calculation is an interesting one. Taking into account the variation in jar sizes of shop marmalade (which means that supermarket own brands are almost the same price by weight as  branded products) my marmalade computes out to half the cost of top-priced Waitrose or Tesco Finest,  and the traditional Frank Cooper's Oxford. 

This means the budget could take the indulgence of lacing one batch with a generous slug of whisky. The smell that swirls up as the spirit is poured into the pan of marmalade is almost as good as drinking it. Vintage 2009 with Talisker - labelled  the Tartan Toreador - was a particularly enjoyable weekend indulgence.

The Tartan Toreador: Seville marmalade with malt whisky
However, another taste has been introduced this year,  perhaps triggered by hearing Leonard Cohen on the radio and recalling his song about the tantalising Suzanne, who "gives you tea and oranges, that come all the way from China". 

Or maybe it was remembering the Irish tea party hosted every Boxing Day by our wonderful neighbours Allen and Olive Synge, following the traditional 20-a-side (roughly) hockey match on Blackheath.  Cold and muddy protagonists and spectators were revived with  Lapsang Souchong, liberally laced with Jamesons whiskey, served in fine china cups.

So as one batch of Golden Seville marmalade is left to cool in the pan before potting (to allow the peel to settle evenly) a couple of Lapsang Souchong teabags are added.  The smoky aroma released from the tea (created by drying the leaves over burning pine needles) is as fragrant as whisky - and rather less costly.   So in 2012 we will enjoy our malt whisky in the glass, rather than on our toast.


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