The first time I made bitter orange marmalade I used my lemon marmalade recipe, on the presumption that the two – both being citrus fruits – could be handled in more or less the same way. But my lemon version is a refined kind of affair, with delicate swirls of thin rind suspended in tart jelly. Not suitable, I realised, for Seville orange marmalade.
On subsequent occasions when L returned from the citrus-packed Amalfi Coast (he goes there regularly, to work on his Positano publication) with bags of the bitter fruit, I worked on a more aptly chunky result. What follows is a list of hints rather than a recipe. It looks long, but it’s more chat than blow-by-blow instructions, so don’t be alarmed. I’m hoping it makes sense.
Bitter (Seville) oranges – as many as you can find
Sugar – depends on oranges and taste
Wash your oranges – which should be untreated on the outside and as organic as possible – very well to remove any dirt and residue. Chop each in half and squeeze it. As you work through your pile of fruit, put the juice in a large bowl (or better, straight into the large saucepan or preserving pan which you’ll use to make your marmalade: it’s a good idea now to know what volume of liquid your jam pot holds, in order to know how much you’re making, and therefore to gauge how much sugar you need to add later). Keep the skins to one side. Keep the pips and any flesh removed by the juicer too, and put them into a muslin sack or jelly bag.
Now you’ll need to go back through the skins, one by one, using a teaspoon (or at least, I find that’s the best implement) scraping out all the pips, any remaining pulp and as much of the membrane that separates the segments as you can, and placing them all in the muslin sack or jelly bag with what was stuck in the juicer. You don’t have to be too thorough: any odd bits and bobs left clinging to the inside of the half-oranges will dissolve in the cooking process but it doesn’t hurt to get the bulk out now.
Once you’ve completed this long process, an even longer one awaits: using the sharpest knife you can trust yourself with, slice the skins as thinly as you can. Or maybe I should say, as thinly as you like. Because these pieces are what will give the marmalade that bitter-orange chunkiness. In my case it’s generally patience – or lack of it – that has the final word, but it’s up to you to decide how thick you want them.
As you chop, take care to discard stalks and blemished patches and anything that you don’t want appearing in the final product.
Put the strips of sliced peel into the bowl or saucepan with the juice. When you’ve finished, the juice will probably be almost invisible beneath the mound of peel. Add enough water to cover the peel comfortably – a hopelessly vague indication, I know, but that’s as precise as I can get. Pressing down gently on the peel with the flat of my hand to stop it from floating, I run cold water into the bowl until it barely covers the back of my hand. That should, more or less, do it.
Now find some way to suspend your muslin/jelly bag so that the pip+membrane mess is fully submerged among the peel+liquid. The former oozes wonderful natural pectin into the marmalade mix, helping it to set beautifully. Leave it like this overnight if you can.
Next morning, move the whole lot on to the stove. (Obviously, if your juice and peel is still in a bowl, you’ll need to transfer it into a suitably sized cooking pot.) With the muslin bag still suspended on top of the pot – its contents submerged in the peel+juice – heat the whole lot up slowly and allow it to bubble gently for an hour or so.
This stage of the process has two purposes. It softens the peel even more than the overnight soak did. Let it go on bubbling until the peel is nice and soft and remember: once you add sugar, the peel will not get any softer. (Remember also: if you’re using a wide-topped jelly bag like mine, that acts as a kind of lid, and the mix underneath is quite likely to boil over unless you watch it carefully!) The cooking also releases even more of that precious pectin: the mix will probably start looking deceptively jammy even before the sugar goes in.
When the peel is just right, remove the jelly bag and suspend it over a bowl to drip and cool. When the bag is no longer untouchably hot, put on some clean rubber gloves and squeeze all the viscous, slimy pectin-packed liquid you can into the bowl, then tip this into the saucepan. Even before you do, you can add your sugar to the pot and start the final stage of the jam-making.
How much sugar you use will be dictated by how you like your marmalade. I like mine tinglingly bitter – the kind that makes your taste buds throb for hours after eating. So I do 50% sugar, ie if I have five litres of juice+peel, I’ll add around 2.5kg of sugar. I repeat though, this ratio is for bitter-orange extremists. A more ‘normal’ recommendation would be 1:1 (5 litres liquid, 5kg sugar); some people prefer less, some people more. It really depends how sweet your tooth is.
Now keep the mix at a gentle bubble, stirring regularly to stop it from sticking or boiling over, until it shows the usual signs of gelling. This could take an hour, or even two. How long depends on the pectin content of the fruit, on the amount of sugar you use (more sugar, less boiling, as a rule) and on the time and effort you put into ‘milking’ pectin from your jelly bag, as those slimy gloopy drops contain the precious gelling agent that will do the trick for you.
You’ll know when it’s done when your sugar thermometre reaches 103° (one degree less, more or less, for each 100m above sea level) or when, if you dribble some hot liquid on to a saucer and let it cool right down, the beautiful amber gel forms a slightly crinkly skin as you draw a finger through it. Purists keep a pile of saucers in the fridge for this purpose, to make cooling and testing a speedier affair. I can’t be bothered, and my decision to call the marmalade ready is educated-guess work. Beware though that if you over-cook it, the marmalade will set to a soft sticky toffee once it has cooled down in its jars: absolutely delicious, but not necessarily the consistency you were expecting.
There are instructions for sterilising jars here. When it’s ready, leave the marmalade mix to sit for five minutes or so, in order to minimize the risk of cracking jars with this ultra-boiling liquid, then spoon it into the hot, sterilised containers, up to about 1cm or slightly less from the top, and put the sterilised lids on tightly straight away. Never fiddle with the lids once the cooling-down process begins: the vacuum seal that forms inside between marmalade and lid will preserve the jam for months – even years… though chances are, it’ll be eaten long before you can test this theory.