In the early years we had apple trees, pear, and plum trees, random fig trees, brambles and wild roses for rose hip jelly, elder shrubs with their shower of white flowers followed by umbrellas of small black berries. There was even a medlar that had been grafted onto a rowan (the rowan won) and a solitary, struggling quince in the orchard of peaches.
My jam making enthusiasm was eventually curbed by the fact that bread and jam did not seem to fit into the French way of feeding schoolchildren. There was a limit to the amount of bottled fruit, usually in alcohol, that two adults can consume. Then John announced that he (and other real people) only ate marmelade, bitter orange marmelade.
This was in the early Eighties when supermarkets had not really arrived in the Dordogne. One could get oranges at Monoprix in Perigueux or in the weekly markets when the season was right.
But it all came right in the end. First, John took me to stay at the Aiglon Hotel in Menton, deepest south of France, right on the Italian border. One of Menton's main claims to fame, in English eyes at least, was its history as a winter refuge for the wealthy. Queen Victoria had visited. Menton's micro-climate offered palm trees, citrus trees and exotic plants. The Empress Eugenie lived close to the town. And some refugees from the Bolshevik revolution also made their mark on it. There was, and still is, an elegant promenade along the sheltered sea-front.*
When we arrived the esplanade was elegantly dressed with healthy palm trees. The grander back streets had the occasional small orange tree, some of which were showing very small oranges.So marmelade came to mind.
I went to the local greengrocer, just around the corner from the hotel, and asked for 2 kilos of oranges ameres and got a funny look in return. He kindly pointed out that they were bitter and so no use. I explained about marmelade for the English. He looked thoughtful, said he would see what he could do and to come back in two days.
The price was steep, I winced and paid. We went home and I made marmalade the classic English way, 2 x the weight of the fruit in sugar.
|boiling the peel with the sugar and some water
Then boil, boil and boil again, add the juice of a lemon, pot when the right dropping consistency has been reached - when a string of orange syrup clings to the wooden spoon in a veil that gradually becomes a thread.
Then a friend visited us at La Chaise on his way from Spain to Britain. I was complimented on my marmelade and was promised naranjas amargas the next time we visited him. We booked our trip for the following winter and came back with almost a boot full of the fruit - for free.
Another visiting friend commented on my marmelade whilst we were at breakfast.I related the Menton story. She laughed. Apparently one of the more energetic of Menton's mayors had decided to replace all the town's plane trees (English town style) with wild orange trees which did not need so much pruning and certainly did not shed their leaves every winter......It took two days for the grocer to collect two kilos of free fruit?!
Fortunately I now have a source of bitter oranges much closer than either Menton or my Javea based friend. Saint Feliu de Guixols is only a six hour drive (all being well i.e. no road works around Perpignan) from La Chaise. Whilst staying there one year we were persuaded to visit the Museu de la Confitura in Torrent - irresistible. And there I found the definitive recipe for bitter orange marmelade, using one kilo of sugar to two kilos of fruit.
After asking vainly in the local shops for naranjas amargas, and getting very odd looks, I started with the local fruit vendors in the markets. Eventually I located the bio fruit and vegetable sellers but only one responded. 'Taronjas amargues' he exclaimed, drowning me in a flood of fast Catalan. I gathered he would have some next week. And so he did, two kilos for €2.50, a give away.
Trial and error have persuaded me to follow the Jam Museum's recipe EXACTLY, even to cooking the slivers of peel with the pith still attached until it could be separated using only finger nails. I did wait until the mixture had cooled a little.
Bitter oranges are almost all pith and pips and very little juice, so separating them out is a little time consuming. But the actual cooking to setting time is very quick, about 80 minutes. I did treat myself of an actual jam funnel to pot the January 2019, I did not wish to lose a sticky drop. But, as tradition demands, I did not buy new jars.
Do read Giles Waterfield's book: The Long Afternoon - very evocative of the period