Why marmalade is the preserve of the discerning palate

Marmalade on toast
Marmalade on toast
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WHAT was on the menu for breakfast today? A plate heaped with tattie scones, black pudding, sausage, bacon, eggs, beans, tomatoes and mushrooms? In the 19th century, depending on your social status, the great British breakfast might also have included porridge, broiled mutton chops, stewed kidneys, smoked fish, crisp toast and rich breakfast cakes, all accompanied by honey and fruit jam – and not forgetting the quintessential British breakfast ingredient, marmalade.

Today we’re more health conscious and pressed for time, and according to a Mintel survey of breakfast habits, published last week, marmalade has been one of the casualties. In 1972, 36 per cent of British breakfasters ate marmalade, but today numbers across these sceptred isles have dropped to just seven per cent.

So is marmalade heading for a bitter end? Is this breakfast habit condemned to be shredded? Here in Scotland there are some signs of hope. Mark Thomson of Kantar Worldpanel, which runs the biggest sample of shoppers and consumer behaviour across the UK, says Scots are 11 per cent more likely to eat breakfast than the rest of the UK. And marmalade is consumed by 8.6 per cent of the Scottish population, compared with 5.8 per cent in the rest of the UK.

“If you look at Scotland, we are 13 per cent more likely to say that habit and tradition drive our food consumption,” says Thomson. That may explain why McKays, the last remaining producers of marmalade in the Dundee area, report that sales are not only strong, but rising annually.

Do Scots eat more marmalade because they invented it? Let’s hope not, because that tale about James Keiller, his canny wife, and a shipload of Seville oranges is hogwash. Even the Keiller family tried setting the record straight, but as the saying goes, why let the truth spoil a good story?

According to myth, in the late 1700s a Spanish ship loaded with oranges docked in Dundee taking shelter from a storm. While it was in harbour, a bargain-hunting grocer named Keiller bought most of the cargo at a discount. When his customers shunned the bitter fruit, rather than lose their investment, his wife Janet turned them into a fruit preserve and lo, marmalade was born.

Never mind that Keiller was single, that it was his mum slaving away over a hot vat of fruit and sugar, or that there was a centuries old tradition of marmalade making – using quince – already in place on the Continent.

Scottish cookery and food writer Sue Lawrence picks up the thread: “Most of the story is iffy: the principle of marmalade was invented centuries before. The definite fact is that the Keillers were mainly confectioners and specialised in marmalade in the 1800s – way after the English. But they were the first to produce Scottish chip marmalade, with the peel. Before that, it was either included as massive chunks, or completely sieved out.”

A bit guiltily, Lawrence confesses: “I’m a Dundonian, and I don’t like marmalade. It’s very bitter. But I always have a jar in the house because my English husband loves it.”

She’s not the only foodie to turn up her nose at the orange preserve. Niamh Shields, author of Comfort And Spice, who blogs at eatlikeagirl.com, doesn’t fancy it much either. “The rind is too bitter for me, and also, we’re not as obsessed with it in Ireland, where I’m from.”

Asked about the possible reasons behind marmalade’s decline, she says: “I read a quote recently, ‘When a society places less focus on religion, health takes the place of religion.’ The western world generally is obsessed with health and the Great British Breakfast, fantastic as it is, is not healthy to eat daily – even though it’s everyone’s go-to for a hangover. People today aren’t eating as much toast, and they’re concerned about the amount of sugar in jams.

“Plus, for a while it felt as though the British didn’t have confidence in their traditional cuisine and were more keen to embrace foods from abroad. You’re more likely to get a Thai curry in a British pub than a fry-up. But we’re starting to regain pride in the national foods. For example, there are lots of brilliant artisan producers making great bacon and black pudding and that helps put these things, and their accompaniments, back on our tables.”

One food writer flying the flag for marmalade is Andrew Webb, editor of www.lovefood.com and author of Food Britannia, which was recently crowned the Guild of Food Writers’ Book of Year. “Marmalade is a very robust taste, and I love it as a morning pick-me-up,” he says. The problem, as he sees it, is that too many adults pander to children’s taste buds. “A lot of commercial jams are so over-sweetened, it’s like playing guess the fruit. I like the fact that you come to marmalade later, like other bitter flavours, such as coffee.”

He adds: “When I was a child, I ate like a child, and now I’m a man, I’ll eat like a man. Think of brown sauce. Kids eat ketchup, and then there’s that point when you start liking brown sauce. Brown sauce won’t change its spots to appeal to a younger market, and marmalade is the same.

“It’s a rite of passage to come to marmalade, like your first girlfriend, losing your virginity or going off to university. Let kids be kids, and when they’re ready, they can eat marmalade.”

He’s hit on a key fact – most marmalade consumers are aged over 45. Mark Thomson explains: “There are 4.4 billion occasions when marmalade is consumed at breakfast. Adults 45 plus, male and female, represent more than 80 per cent of that market.”

Maybe the trick to spearheading a revival is remembering that marmalade is not just for breakfast. “What is Duck a l’Orange, but duck with a bitter orange sauce,” asks Lawrence? “The French would be horrified, but you can easily do that with marmalade.”

Webb agrees. “Unlike jam, it’s got a myriad of culinary uses in cakes and baking, or for making glazes for meat.”

Sophisticated and a little bit retro, marmalade is one British staple that’s here to stay. As the Balmoral Hotel’s director of food and beverage, Alexander Feij, reminds us: “There is no question here of not having the marmalade on the table. We offer it systematically for afternoon tea and for breakfast in the restaurant or with room service. We’d have complaints if we didn’t. Though it’s in third place, after strawberry jam and honey, there is no decrease in consumption. Those little jars are not coming back empty – some aren’t coming back at all, they go away with the customers.”