The fidanzata joined a ‘GAS’, which stands for Gruppo di Acquisto Solidale: a consumers’ cooperative society. It’s a wonderful thing, enabling the bulk purchase of items which come direct from the farmer to the consumer with no middleman. Fresher produce, lower prices, and everyone benefits. She bought some mandarins for €7.50. Seems reasonable.
Except… for that small cost, we ended up with 10 kg of mandarins. For the Americans, that’s 22 lbs. I weighed four of them and they were 250 g. Which means that we had around 160 of the bloody things to deal with. They did come in a nice wooden punnet though.
“Don’t worry amore, I’ll give them to my relatives,” she said. But after three family visits with full carrier bags we still had 7 kg left. What the hell do you do with 15 lbs of mandarins? We ate a few, but didn’t want to die of vitamin C poisoning.
The gorgeous smell that permeated the apartment gave me a hint: make marmalade.
There are many great marmalades in Italy – some for spreading on bread, and some for eating with cheese and so on – but to my English palate they’re all too damn sweet. (Linguistic note – marmellata in Italian just means ‘jam’. Orange marmalade is called marmellata di arance.)
It’s a strange thing in a country where the amaro taste (‘bitter’) is so common and prized, and little kids are brought up on a Coca Cola-like drink made from orange peel called chinotto which is so bitter it makes the uninitiated grimace – that the jams are tooth-achingly sweet. But so it is. Also, almost all marmellate are strained – they avoid the texture of the peel.
Being from that city, I’m a devotee of Frank Cooper’s Oxford marmalade. It’s robust in texture, dark in colour and bitter in flavour. So I sacrificed our remaining 6 kilos of mandarins to recreating it, reserving 1 kilo to make a spiced Italian-style marmalade for cheese.
The first thing to do was wash them. They came direct from an orchard, but who knows whether or not pesticides had been used.
Next I juiced them. The food processor made this a lot less effort, though I barked my knuckles considerably while doing it.
With the juice reserved, I de-pulped every half-mandarin with a spoon. This was the biggest pain in the entire enterprise.
I put the pulp into a pan, covered it with water, brought it to the boil and then simmered it. Next, I sliced the peel very thin.
I then put the peel into another pan, covered it with water, boiled it and brought back down to a simmer. After 1 hour of simmering both things I turned off the heat and strained the pulp.
Then in a big heavy-bottomed saucepan I put the warm juice that came from the pulp, added 333 g of sugar and one sachet of 3:1 pectin per kilo of mandarins, and stirred until it was mostly dissolved. (3:1 pectin means you can use 3 times the weight of fruit to that of sugar. It’s also available in 2:1 and 1:1 – but the latter two would produce a marmellata that would be horribly sweet to my palate) Then I added the softened peel and its bitter water, and the juice, and set the entire lot to boil.
(The vast amount of mandarin liquid involved isn’t shown – I had to do it in several batches because there was so damn much to work with.)
Ignoring the instructions on the packet of pectin was vital at this point. Before I started I read the relevant chapter in my copy of McGee on Food, and according to that you need to boil off enough water for the pectin (both naturally from the fruit, and the stuff I added for low-pectin fruit like oranges) to form a gel when it’s cool. If you don’t, it will be completely runny and won’t be something you can spread on toast. The pectin packet said ‘boil for three minutes’. This instruction was total bullshit. Particularly because I had recombined the juice and used the water from the peel, so the mixture was incredibly liquid, and thus the boiling process took more like an hour.
Here’s why: McGee says that when a pectin/fruit mixture has correct proportion of water to form a gel, its boiling point will be higher than that of water alone: between 103 and 105 Celsius. Anything more than that and the pectin molecules won’t recombine into the structure that forms a gel – they’ll just be floating around in a solution.
To test the gel I put a plate in the freezer for a few minutes, then took it out and put a dollop of boiling marmalade on it to see if it was of a good marmalady texture when it was cool. Even when the mixture was boiling away at 103C and 104C the blobs of gel on the plate were really runny: the mixture needed to lose a significantly higher amount of water.
So I set the thermometer alarm to 105C then went and had a beer. But not before I’d begun sterilizing a huge number of jars in the oven.
The house smelled incredible at this point.
And finally the alarm beeped, the frozen-plate test came out perfect, and I started jarring it up. Because I’m not a little old lady and don’t use wax paper on the top of my marmalade jars, one of the recipes I read told me to invert the jars for five minutes to create a seal. I did this. Then flipped them over and let them cool. As they cooled, the little ‘pop-ups’ on the top of the jars sucked downwards to reassure future consumers that the jars haven’t been compromised.
In the meantime I’d also made a loaf of bread and a batch of Italian-style marmalade for cheese, using only the juice but spicing it up with cinnamon and nutmeg.
The entire enterprise took hours and hours, but only cost about €20. It all tastes divine. I was a little inattentive about one of the batches I made, and it caramelised on the bottom of the pan. I stirred in the burned bits and it was a revelation! It looks like Frank Cooper’s and tastes like Frank Cooper’s.
The end result was absolutely gorgeous. I made about 5 litres of the stuff. We’ve got enough marmalade to last us at least three years, but being a bit skint, I now have no worries about what to buy anyone for Christmas.