Many marmalade myths

Sandy Neil home made Marmalade
Sandy Neil home made Marmalade

We all know Scots invented the television, telephone, tarmac and penicillin – but who knew we brought marmalade into the world as well?

Henry VIII spread the first recorded ‘marmalade’ in Britain in 1524, but, writes F. Marian McNeill in The Scots Kitchen, “the name (from the Portuguese marmelo, a quince) was originally applied to a conserve of quinces, as porridges (from the Latin porrum, a leek), was originally applied to pottage, or broth.”

“Sixteenth and seventeenth century cookery books mention marmalade being made from plums, dates, cherries, apricots, and apples as well as quinces,” notes Catherine Brown in Scottish Regional Recipes.

The credit, she says, for making the first citrus-fruit marmalade must go “to the noted epicure, scholar and traveller Sir Kenelm Digby (1603-1665), who, having travelled widely in Italy and Spain, introduced the idea of using oranges and lemons”.

“Oranges had been imported into Scotland for the royal household from at least 1497,” writes Olive Geddes in The Laird’s Kitchen, “when the Lord High Treasurer paid three shillings ‘for bering of the appil oreynzies [oranges] to the hous from the schip’ at Leith and twelve pence ‘for ane small barel to send appilis oreynzies to Falkland and Sanctandrois [St Andrews] to the King.’” Legend tells of Mary, Queen of Scots, in Jedburgh, on the point of death after catching a chill riding to tryst with her lover Bothwell, being given a sweet concoction of quinces or oranges to tempt her appetite. She liked it so much a dish was kept always at her bedside, and thus took the name ‘Marie malade’. Whether true or not, the custom of eating orange marmalade for breakfast became popular in Scotland – in fact, “the Scots were the first to serve marmalade as a breakfast spread,” asserts The Essential Scottish Cookery.

Writing in his Tours of Scotland in 1747, the epicurean traveller Bishop Richard Pococke observed that the Scots ‘always bring toasted bread, and besides, butter, honey and jelly of preserved orange peel.”

Later, Sir Walter Scott’s biographer and son-in-law John Gibson Lockhart records in The Life of Scott the novelist’s breakfasts at Abbotsford: “His table was always provided, in addition to the usual plentiful articles of a Scottish breakfast [by which we must assume porridge, cream, oatcakes, bannocks, butter, marmalade, jams and jellies] with some solid article, on which he did most lusty execution – a round of beef – a pastry – or, most welcome of all, a cold sheep’s head, the charms of which primitive dainty he has so gallantly defended against the disparaging sneers of Dr Johnson.

“A huge brown loaf flanked his elbow, and it was placed upon a broad wooden trencher, that he might cut and come again with the bolder knife … He never tasted anything more before dinner, and dinner he ate … sparingly.”

Another legend testifies to the Scottish origins of marmalade. “Dundee is the home of bitter marmalade,” asserts Theodora Fitzgibbon in A Taste of Scotland: “its invention being credited to Mr and Mrs James Keillor in the early eighteenth century.

“The story goes that a ship from Spain took refuge from a storm in Dundee harbor, carrying a large cargo of Seville oranges. These were bought in quantity, very cheaply, by James Keillor, who later found that owing to their bitterness he was unable to sell them. His ingenious wife, Janet, not wishing to waste the fruit, made them into a jam, or conserve, little realizing that it would achieve world fame.”

“Several generations later in 1797,” Catherine Brown continues in Scottish Regional Recipes, “another Mrs Keillor and her son James put the idea to the commercial test and built the world’s first marmalade factory.”

“Given that the Englishwoman Rebecca Price copied her mother’s instructions for ‘marmolet of oranges’ into her recipe book in 1581, the story of Janet Keillor cannot be the whole truth,” argues Olive Geddes in The Laird’s Kitchen.

But to the doyenne of Scottish cookery writers, F Marian McNeill in The Scots Kitchen, “marmalade and porridge are Scotland’s chief gifts to the breakfast-table of the English-speaking world ... Marmalade may be served with roast pork, duck, or goose, and with hot boiled ham. Eaten with buttered oatcake, brown bread, or a wheaten meal scone, it is an excellent last mouthful at breakfast.”

“A marmalade-glazed ham is a thing of wonder,” writes Niki Segnit in The Flavour Thesaurus: “Use a marmalade that’s made with plenty of Seville oranges; if it’s too sugar-heavy, you’re in danger of making ham with jam, which will please no one but Dr Seuss.”

Seville oranges are now in season, so get stirring.