I’m amazed that two Potwell Inn regulars have suggested their favourite marmalade recipes already, although the difference is more in the preparation than the ingredients. Mags emailed with her favourite approach and then today Rose suggested hers. The common factor was that they both involved cooking the fruit whole and then removing the pips and pulp. In Rose’s recipe – or rather Mrs Beeton’s – the pulp is returned to the pan without the chopped peel after cooking whole for 2 hours. The two hour cooking period is common to almost all the recipes I’ve seen. In Mag’s it’s returned in a muslin bag which makes it easier to remove than the Beeton recipe which needs straining. Again all recipes require the removal of the pips.
I’ve never cooked the fruit whole before but I have to say it simplified the whole job and made the peel much easier to slice finely. Apart from that, today I used golden granuated cane sugar because Madame (and me too) like the colour which doesn’t seem to affect the flavour noticeably. So far as setting is concerned I’ve been setting by temperature for the last couple of years because it’s more reliable for me. 104.5C Seems to do the trick for pretty well any jam, but if you prefer the wrinkle test (or you can use it better than me), I’m sure it’s just as good. Right at the end I chuck in a glass of whisky or brandy if there’s some in the cupboard. But I’m amazed that marmalade generates such recipe loyalty – I think we all know that almost whatever recipe you use it’s going to turn out better than the rather tasteless commercial product.
Beyond that we’re still recovering from the viruses but we whizzed across to the garden centre to get some seed sowing compost. While we were there I ‘accidentally’ bought some seeds for Bhut Jolokia chillies which can ripen to 1000,000+ Scoville units. It’s by far the hottest chilli we’ve ever tried to grow – Oh Joy! – and thanks for the emails.
It’s inevitable when you make bread regularly that just now and again you’ll get a batch that refuses to play. This isn’t just a problem with home baking – I can remember many occasions when we lived in a large village that still had its own bakery, and occasionally there would be a queue outside the door because Brian (the baker) was having problems with an overnight batch. You could hardly blame lack of experience in his case because he’d been baking in the family business since the days when he delivered the bread to the outlying hamlets in a horse and cart. A dud batch can affect anyone.
In my instance yesterday it was entirely my own fault because I didn’t feed the starter as I usually do, 24 hours before mixing the sponge. Cue for a sluggish fermentation that really never caught up and a dense loaf that just felt wrong at every stage from kneading onwards. It still tasted alright but fell short in every other respect.
In the past I’ve lost a batch through using out-of-date yeast and even well out of date flour. Sometimes being thrifty just lands up wasting time and money. The weather and the temperature can have a huge impact and the smaller the batch the bigger and more rapid the effect can be. A large batch can withstand sitting in a cold draught for ten minutes where a small, one loaf batch will plummet in temperature. Too much salt will slow a fermentation right down and spoil the flavour anyway and then, keeping a benevolent but not fussy eye on the way things are going can prevent a loaf from blowing. Sourdough, being a slower method, won’t be hurried whereas adding extra yeast to a yeast bread can speed things up at the expense of keeping quality. The same goes for sugar which is quite unnecessary in sourdough anyway. I’m sure any of these variables could be eliminated with a pile of measuring instruments but I’d never bother. Mistakes are a great teacher.
The season for cod roe seems to have come and gone without me spotting any at all but as for marmalade I had an email from Potwell Inn friend Mags who had read my piece a couple of weeks ago. She tells me she boils the fruit whole for 2 hours before removing the pulp into a muslin bag and slicing the peel. She says it’s less time consuming and in any case makes better flavoured marmalade with less sugar – so tomorrow I’ll give it a go and report back on the results. The new batch demands another dozen new jars – I really thought we’d never have to buy another jar or lid but somehow all this preserving and pickling has used them all.
A somewhat enforced day indoors due to the onset of a miserable cold this morning. Not man-flu, I hasten to say, but something much worse. I’m waiting bravely for the black pustules and the final tremors. Meanwhile, Madame had other ideas and went early to the shops to get some paracetamol for me and came back with 5Kg of Seville oranges. By my estimate that’s enough to make nearly 40 jars, I protested, but I was not spared making the first ten pounds. The thought that I might be able to eat home made marmalade in the morning after several months of abstinence due to my not bothering to open a storage crate and read the labels, put steel in my backbone, and I soldiered on in my finest passive-aggressive manner, sneezing whenever she came near.
The oranges were packed in 1.5Kg nets which, needless to say, were made of plastic – as were all of the labels. We haven’t done nearly enough to address the needless packaging in supermarkets. When we do have to buy veg we always buy them loose, and there’s no reason on earth why that shouldn’t apply to Seville oranges. For a start they’d be cheaper.
It’s only a minor faff, making marmalade. Most of the work is in prepping the oranges which have a great number of pips that need to be separated out and cooked in a muslin bag because apparently they’ve got most of the pectin. Then there’s cutting up the peel. Madame and I are like Jack Sprat and his wife, in that I prefer my marmalade lumpy with thick chunks of peel whereas she prefers the peel cut very thin, and that demands a sharp knife, infinite patience and a lot of time, all of which I naturally possess in abundance. Normally!
It’s surprising how cutting peel blunts a kitchen knife and I needed to stop and sharpen it several times. But chopping, slicing and dicing are one of those unsung kitchen pleasures that you never really understand until you’ve got the right tools. I know I’m supposed to be lusting after some hand forged damascus steel artisan produced (delete superlatives where necessary) knife; but having borrowed lots of these small objects of desire off my chef sons, I’ve settled on relatively inexpensive knives from Ikea at about a third the cost but which seem indistinguishable from their rich relatives.
Marmalade takes an age to make because the peel and pulp need cooking slowly to soften them before the sugar goes in, but in addition, there was the prospect of several days of harsh frost imminent, according to the weather forcast. We’ve got quite a lot growing on the allotment ready for an early start when spring gets here, and although most of them, the broad beans for instance, will withstand pretty cold weather they will be set back if they’re left exposed in a scything north-easterly for any length of time. We’ve also got onions, garlic, shallots and various beets above ground. Covering them with fleece has its drawbacks too – although sunlight does get through, it’s much diminished and so we’re left with trying to second guess the least-worst outcome. Three nights at -3C in the offing persuaded us that fleecing as much as possible would help rather than hinder and so in a break from marmalade making we went up and got everything we could tucked in against the cold.
Meanwhile, back at the Potwell Inn there was a meal to be cooked (more Christmas week leftovers – will it ever end?) and bread to be baked, and so it was 11.00pm before the marmalade was safely sealed in its jars, the washing up was finished and the sourdough kneaded for its overnight rise. When I woke this morning at six I could see the rime on the car windscreens outside the flat and I was glad we’d gone to all that trouble yesterday.
But a familiar feeling of being chained to the process came over me. Feeding ourselves as much as we can is a complete joy, but it comes with timetables and responsibilities that can’t be put off until a more convenient time. Bread making, potting, allotmentering and above all parenting all come with the capacity to demand time and energy you don’t feel you possess at that moment. Over thirty years ago, while I was training, we had a memorable session with a teacher called Father Edmund Wheat who was part of the Kelham College community. He said to us that we probably thought we should be out there doing amazing things all the time and were just discovering that what we were actually doing was far more mundane. He said to us – “Always remember that availability is an ascetic discipline.”
It’s frosty and there’s a lingering mist over the city that suggests it’s going to be one of those bone-chilling days out there, so we’re not racing to get up to the allotment. As ever the post-Christmas fridge is stuffed with leftovers demanding attention and bits of overbuying are ticking away dangerously like timebombs. And that’s not all, because there are things – nameless things – in the storecupboard that should be thrown away. Old and failed lactofermenting experiments like two of the three ways of preserving cucumbers should probably be given a respectful burial. Experiment number three, which was the least – shall we say – purist, is the most successful by far and even gained the approval of our son’s Polish girlfriend, and so we’ll mark that recipe in Diana Hendry’s book on preserving. Sadly – much as I love Sandor Katz – the first version failed mainly on texture. Cucumbers are prone to get rather slimy and soft in pickles, and when you add tough skin to the list of properties you can see that the poor unloved jar was going to linger in the cupboard to the end of time! The second version was so salty you’d probably have to tell your doctor if you ate more than two. But then the upside of the clearout is that there are more 2 litre Kilner jars for sauerkraut and other experiments, and we’re trialing a new variety of pickling cucumber next season. We’ve yet to try the salted beans which were inspired by a remark in her biography by by Patience Gray’s son who said he actually preferred them to the fresh ones. I can hardly believe that’s possible but we’ve done a small batch anyway.
There’s one thing we’ve been waiting for January to make, and that’s marmalade. We ran out in the spring because I mistakenly thought we’d got loads in a box in the garage. It turned out to be ten jars of rather aged plum chutney. January is when the new crop of Seville oranges comes into the shops and I can hardly wait. We did buy a jar of commercial marmalade but in the end we chucked it out after a few tries because it lacked bite. Far too much sugar and low on fruit it was precisely what you get when you favour price over value.
The other thing that comes in January may not appear at all this year because cod stocks are always a bit fragile and the only kind to get is certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council. But since I was a child I’ve always loved fresh cod roe. Most of it goes for smoking to make taramasalata As you see, the fresh stuff’s a bit in your face and it’s a faff to prepare because it needs poaching before you can do anything with it. But I love it – possibly all the more because it only appears for a brief season and often not at all so there’s no prospect of ever getting bored with it. But I’m probably among a dwindling number of people who will buy it. It’s almost certainly one of those dishes like feijoada that can only be fully loved by those who’ve eaten it from childhood. But next Saturday I shall go to the farmers’ market where I know there’s a fishmonger who will have it if there’s any about. Poached and then sliced, dipped in egg and flour and fried, it’s really lovely with the cheapest white bread you can get and some tomato ketchup. It’s like being six again.