Bitter orange marmalade from San Miniato

It’s not every day that you walk into a butcher shop and come out with a few kilos of bitter oranges aka Seville oranges or arance amare in Italian. But it’s also, I think, not every day that you find a butcher shop that has this sort of garden out the back with a sweeping view over the valley and terraces of mandarins, lemons and Seville orange trees. San Miniato seems to be full of these terraces of citrus trees and one of the homes we saw when house hunting had a garden full of trees so laden and ripe with fruit that the boughs were almost dragging on the ground and the girls were running through them, playing hide and seek behind the dark green leaves. I had dreams of buying that house and making pots and pots of marmalade, but unfortunately the house itself had its own issues (rooms with no windows and an ongoing dispute with the neighbours over a faulty ceiling with cracked beams) but I still dream of that garden.

Cue my friend and favourite butcher, Andrea Falaschi, whose trees are packed like over-decorated Christmas trees. I have dropped hints before but this particular visit, Andrea’s mamma Lina (who you might remember with her stuffed chicken recipe), ushered me out the back with a large bowl to collect some. I told her I’d try out a test batch of marmalade. “But come back and get the rest,” she urged me, “They’ll only drop and go rotten otherwise!” As I started picking them, I couldn’t help but think of all the abandoned trees I’d seen around town where this does happen. It reminded me of a little project my friend Alice in Rome runs which she calls the Neighbourhood Orange Project — they collect bitter oranges from the decorative trees that line Roman roadsides and she has been teaching refugees to make marmalade, which they sell, with success.

Bitter oranges, or Seville oranges, are a hybrid citrus, a cross between mandarin and pomelo. They come into season in deep winter and have a thick peel and an extremely bitter pulp that tickles the back of your throat. Although inedible raw, bitter oranges make a delicious and fragrant marmalade and as they have a higher than usual pectin content, it seems a no-brainer to just make jam out of them. But you can also make good use of the peel in liqueurs (think of homemade bitters, vermouth or even cordials), candied fruits, spoon sweets (swoon!) or even pickles. People told me about making preserved orange peel much like preserved lemons, and marinades for meat (cochinita pibil!) and fish (ceviche!) with the juice. So if you have access to one of these trees — which seem to be easier to find abandoned in a garden or on a roadside than in the markets, at least here in Italy — it could be a little playground for culinary experiments.

I asked around for some great marmalade recipes and had some wonderful tips come in that I thought I’d share. Many suggested Delia Smith’s traditional Seville Orange marmalade recipe which I noticed is quite sweet (2 kg of sugar for 1 kg of fruit; more on this below) and involves juicing all the fruit, then chopping the peels and tying the pips and membranes in a little muslin bag to pop into the saucepan (this helps to draw out the pectin). After 2 hours of simmering, the sugar goes in and it is cooked until set. Nigel Slater’s marmalade with ginger, which is similar but requires the addition of 4 lemons and 100 grams of fresh, shredded ginger for 1 kg of Seville oranges. There is also Stephanie Alexander’s recipe in The Cook’s Companion, where the fruit is separated from the peel, the peel is shredded and this is (minus pips and bitter membranes) all cooked together with water and a pinch of salt and left overnight. The next day, you add sugar to match the weight of the cooked fruit and boil for 30 minutes and a bright, just-set marmalade is made. I love Stephanie’s no-fuss approach.

Pam Corbin, also known as Pam the Jam, author of a number of jam books including the River Cottage Preserves book, shares wonderful jamming tips on her instagram feed, such as make sure to fill the jam to the brim of your jars and using herb scissors to save time cuttings the peels. I loved the idea of freezing Seville oranges (for when you have a glut but not enough energy to make it all into jam!).  She also wrote to me, “Marmalade making can be split over several days. It’s always good to slice and then allow the sliced peels to soak to soften and begin pectin release. Also a day for the softened peel to steep in the sugar syrup turns the peels beautifully translucent and tender.” Great ideas!

While I was looking into all these recipes, my old neighbour from Settignano, Helen, an Australian who has been living in Florence longer than I’ve been on this earth, sent me pictures of her marmalade making process – so wonderfully organised and precise! She orders her oranges from Sicily when she can’t find them at the Sant’Ambrogio market and makes enough to last a year, her beautiful jars all perfectly lined up in her cupboard to go with her homemade sourdough that she bakes once a week.

But the recipe and post I fell in love with was Luisa Weiss, aka the Wednesday Chef, who recently wrote a post on her blog about her “holiest of kitchen rituals,” marmalade-making. It made me want to race into the kitchen right away and cook these oranges but when Luisa writes, “Not only does nothing commercially made come close to the brightness and flavor of homemade Seville orange marmalade, but there is a certain Zen flow to the process of making the marmalade that I have come to cherish. Even my family respects the marmalade zone, giving me a wide berth while I’m elbow deep in granulated sugar and hair-thin shreds of orange peel, the kitchen windows fogged up with orange-scented air,” it made me just cleared my schedule and rolled up my sleeves. Perhaps I was also looking for some Zen flow and a wide berth from the family but it was just the inspiration I needed!

One thing Luisa does that I love is that she boils the oranges whole first. When I read this, it suddenly clicked to me that this is what I do when I make lemon marmalade. I admit, it’s been a while since I’ve had a lemon tree but in the days when I did, this recipe is how I loved to preserve them. And guess what, it’s practically the same as Luisa’s! It is, unsurprisingly, inspired by a bitter orange marmalade recipe from Emma Gardner’s Poires et Chocolate blog, who in turn was inspired by Jane Grigson’s recipe in English Food.

Back to the whole oranges. I love this trick. It resolves many marmalade making tips in one. First, it just makes the whole process easier, in particular the shredding and separating part. Second, it produces a beautifully clear, jewel-like jelly. Luisa’s method is handy if you don’t have a muslin cloth for the tying of the pith and seeds, which can seem a bit fiddly. Also, the cooking whole and (if you leave it overnight in the pot, to continue the next day – I do like breaking it up into 2 days if you can’t get all the time at once) the soaking releases the prized pectin that helps to set the jam.

The world may not need another marmalade recipe when there are already so many good ones, so I won’t add more other than, I’m back to using my lemon marmalade recipe for the bitter oranges too. But like Luisa, I added the juice of a few lemons, and I used less sugar so I could enjoy that natural bitterness (for 1 kg of fruit, try 1.5 kg of sugar instead of 2). I also warmed the sugar in the oven as Luisa suggests — heating the sugar makes it dissolve faster and, I’ve learned, the quicker a jam is made, the fresher, and brighter it tastes.

Finally, if you need a little citrus inspiration, while you’re waiting for the whole oranges to simmer sit down and read this post on citron inspired by Helena Attlee’s The Land Where Lemons Grow, one of my favourite reads ever.

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