Marmalade days, Part II

by little red pen

I picked up Shonagh Koea’s book, The Kindness of Strangers {Kitchen Memoirs} at breakfast this morning, and I’ve been rolling her words like marbles under my tongue all day. I could start quoting anywhere, really, and my stopping point will be likewise borderline arbitrary, but I thought, y’know, marmalade.

The first time I made marmalade was when I was working as a very junior reporter in New Plymouth. The Daily News was a morning newspaper so we all worked until eleven at night, or even later, and no one wanted boarders going in and out of their houses at that hour so I had a tiny flat of my own. There was a tiny kitchen with a kauri bench and a very old-fashioned gas stove on cabriole legs. It had a mottled blue and while enamel surface and I always thought it was rather pretty. I made my first batch of marmalade on that stove and when I had poured it into the jars and left it to set on the bench I thought it looked truly beautiful, so golden and glittering and clear.

This tiny flat was the first home I ever had of my own and I liked it very much. It was very quiet and looked out on to large trees. When I stepped into the place it was always quiet and exactly as I had left it. In Hastings, my father had a habit of suddenly arriving home in his big car, loading it up to the roof with anything nice like crystal glasses or the better blankets or anything he thought was worth having and, with much shouting, driving away. He would not return for several months. That is why when I had that first little flat it pleased me very much that whatever I had, and it was not much, remained where it was. If I had a coat hanging in my wardrobe when I left for work the same coat was hanging in the same wardrobe when I got home. I found the idea of that absolutely charming. Possibly it was the first time I had any reliable sense of security.

The marmalade I made then is essentially the same recipe I still use but I have altered it slightly over the years. I now take no notice of the recipe’s instructions about when the mixture is ready to be put into jars to set because, for marmalade, the timing often varies with the ripeness of the fruit.

To Make Marmalade

six large grapefruit
four lemons
12 cups of water
12 cups of sugar

Slice the grapefruit and lemons as finely as you can, after washing the fruit carefully. Cover the sliced fruit with the water and leave overnight. The following day bring this mixture to the boil and boil for twenty minutes. Remove the jam pan from the heat and stir in the sugar, bring the mixture quickly to the boil after that and boil it for thirty minutes. At this stage you can start testing it to see if it will set. I used to put a spoonful in a saucer and leave it for a minute or two to see if a skin would form on it but after several years of my using this not overly reliable method, an elderly lady I knew told me a very handy trick. It had been passed on to her by her mother. She said to dip an ordinary silver or stainless steel tablespoon into the mixture and then hold it horizontally over the marmalade so you are looking at the wide inner face of the spoon. When the marmalade drips off the lower edge in two separate places simultaneously the marmalade is ready to be put into the jars. It sometimes takes much longer than thirty minutes’ boiling to accomplish this but it is a very reliable method, I have found. When I first started to make marmalade I used to put the clean empty jars in a slow oven to sterilise, about the time I put the sugar in the mixture. Then I would have to get them out one at a time — and they would be hot — with an oven cloth, in a sudden untidy kind of scramble. But these days I put them neatly in rows in a roasting dish and then I just have to get the whole lot out at once and any drips of marmalade, when I fill the jars, are caught in the dish.

[Interlude for a marmalade loaf recipe and time to marvel at the genius spoon and roasting dish methods which, collectively, would eliminate about 80% of my previous marmalade trauma, then…]

Another very nice loaf I sometimes make has no marmalade actually in it, but I put marmalade on it and sometimes make it instead of having ordinary bread. It is a bran teabread and is very pleasant to have sliced and buttered and spread with marmalade for breakfast at a weekend when I go out to my little garden house to read the paper and have a look at my wilderness (which is really only about as big as a tennis court, if that). I have cultivated quite wild and spreading plants so there is an atmosphere of largesse and tropical wilderness in my garden and through this I walk carefully with a cup of coffee in one hand and a doorstep of homemade bran loaf spread with marmalade in the other. Once I tripped on a low-lying leaf of my big flax plant and fell flat on my face, so I have walked through my garden with greater care since then. I had thought, as it was my very own garden, that I would be able to do anything there and be unharmed but this was just a fanciful thought — I am apt to have such fancies and think that because it is me everything will be all right. It mostly is but sometimes not, like the time I tripped over the flax leaf.

Shonagh Koea, The Kindness of Strangers {Kitchen Memoirs}, Auckland, NZ: Random House, 2007 (pp. 32–35).