Mission Marmalade (by Keith Allan)

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The single-track road that skirts Ullswater in Cumbria from Pooley Bridge to Sharrow Bay is a bit tricky, even in broad daylight.

But when an eerie pea-souper descends, making you drive at a snail’s pace towards your bed for the night, you begin to wonder if you’ll ever make it.

We had a precious cargo on board – liquid gold packed in bubble-wrap to protect it from any nasty accident. Our very own Lady Waterford’s marmalade was on its way to the World’s Original Marmalade Festival.

Before leaving it to its destiny, though, we are reliving some memories at nearby Sharrow Bay.

Francis Coulson, a remarkable hotelier and cook, turned Sharrow into the first true country house hotel 63 years ago and invented sticky toffee pudding along the way. He made his own jams and marmalades, too, and you wouldn’t be allowed to check out without at least one of his preserves tucked into your bags.

Sadly, Coulson is no longer with us but the hotel he started all those years ago still lives up to his impeccable standards, largely thanks to Colin Akrigg the long-serving chef who trained with Coulson.

Over dinner my wife and I concluded that dear Francis would have approved of our latest mission. So while tucking into a trio of shellfish, fried calf’s livers on pearl barley, roast fillet of Angus beef and a fillet of cod with shrimp risotto we made our plans to deliver the marmalade.

The next morning, after a blissful night in a silent room overlooking the lake, we came down to good coffee, creamy porridge, yoghurt, scrambled eggs, smoked salmon and an alpine scene stretched out before us. From our window in the breakfast room we had a private view of the mountains iced in rose pink and a glassy Ullswater lying shot with a rainbow of colours.

It was a morning to linger but just up the road Jane McCosh was waiting for us. Through thick and thin, Jane has stuck to her marmalade. From the age of six she has been entranced by bubbling, copper cauldrons of oranges on hot stoves that slowly turn into divine, slightly bitter marmalades.

Spread on toast, it’s what we British have come to expect on our breakfast tables and if it’s made in small batches, lovingly poured off into jars, labelled, dated and stored for future use, then so much the better.

It is, then, with a certain sense of satisfaction that at the beginning of every year jars of marmalade start arriving at Dalemain, the McCosh’s country pile in Cumbria.

At first it’s just a trickle but by the beginning of February it turns into an avalanche, and the beautiful Georgian rooms are soon cluttered with hundreds and hundreds of jars of marmalade.

The carefully wrapped packages arrive like homing pigeons from all over the world and it needs a volunteer force of local helpers to unpack, list and prepare them for the judges to taste – judges from the Women’s Institute, Claire McDonald from the Isle of Skye, and Ivan Day, the UK’s best known food historian, eagerly rush here to taste it all.

They have their work cut out, for there are marmalades from Canada, Alaska, America, the Philippines, Ireland and the Caribbean, to mention only a few, and, of course, from all corners of the United Kingdom.

Many are beautifully and professionally labelled, for the rewards in future sales are considerable for whoever wins a gold, silver or bronze award. Others come a little cock-eyed, with hand-written labels, but nonetheless utterly charming, like one this year written in a child’s hand and lovingly called “Daddy’s Chunky Marmalade”.

Not to be outdone, we drive into the ancient cobbled yard at the back of Dalemain to deliver our own precious entries. They go in the artisan section: Lady Waterford’s Orange Marmalade with Chips (from a Victorian recipe) and ceranium scented Seville orange and apricot.

We’ll be back for the two-day festival itself. It promises to be exciting with a farmer’s market, Paddington Bear and citrus games for children, marmalade tasting and shop, cookery demos, and the presentation of prizes.

z The World’s Original Marmalade Festival, now in its fifth year, takes place at Dalemain Mansion, Penrith, Cumbria, on Saturday and Sunday. For more details: Tel: 017684 86450 www.marmaladefestival.com

z Keith and Lynne Allan run the Restoration Coffee Shop at the Old Dairy in Ford where you can browse a range of architectural antiques, vintage and interior pieces including their range of Lady Waterford jams and marmalades. They specialise in artisan coffee, fresh scones and afternoon teas. Open Wednesday to Sunday 11am-5pm (closed February 25 and 26). To book for afternoon tea call: 01890 820325 or 01289 302658.