Marmalade might be as simple as boiled oranges, lemons and sugar, but the British breakfast staple is a capricious conserve. “It’s amazing how many things can go wrong and also how different it can be with just three ingredients,” says Lucy Deedes, writer and marmalade maker.
Her new book, The Little Book of Marmalade, bears this out: the elegant navy-and-orange tome is packed with marmaladey advice, history and funny stories as well as recipes for making marmalade and for using it.
Lucy is the daughter of WF Deedes, the MP, peer and editor of The Daily Telegraph, commonly known as Bill, who continued to write on politics and current affairs until shortly before his death, aged 94, in 2007. (He remains the oldest man to appear on Have I Got News for You, aged 88.)
Growing up in east Kent, Deedes recalls her father’s breakfast routine, which included her mother’s marmalade on toast, eggs and golf. “He was always hitting golf balls outside in the morning, then he would come in, put the kettle on, shave, and put his boiled eggs on,” she recalls. “He loved bantam eggs. He even took them with him when he went to London.”
Deedes’s marmalade-making started in the late 1970s when she and her sister Jill experimented with a Katie Stewart recipe, the original copy of which, admits Deedes, “is now so spattered, the whole page is filthy”.
Early attempts were pretty slapdash but, when in 2014 she decided to enter the World Marmalade Awards, held every year at Dalemain House in Cumbria, she realised she had to be more meticulous approach, “because the judging is rigorous and any careless errors will be found out”.
Friends started asking to buy the results, and four years ago she began selling “Lucy Marmalade” at her local farmers’ market in Petworth, Sussex, as well as at Cherry’s Deli & Bakery, owned by blogger Cherry Menlove, and by mail order.
Last year’s production – including a bergamot-spiked lemon and Earl Grey and a pink grapefruit version as well as a classic Seville – topped 1,500 jars, although this year (because of Covid) it’s more like 1,000. And yes, she’s won multiple awards at the World Marmalade Awards.
Every “Lucy” jarful is handmade in her kitchen, right down to hand-slicing the peel, as she has no fancy equipment apart from an electric juicer. “But I put the radio on and I don’t mind repetitive tasks,” she says. “It’s like sewing on name tapes. It’s soothing, it leaves your mind free.” And after undergoing repeated bouts of cancer treatment, she finds solace in these carefully produced preserves, quoting T E Lawrence: “happiness is a by-product of absorption”.
Growing up, Deedes helped slice the peel for her mother’s dark, homemade marmalade. Do her own offspring – Deedes has four grown-up children – help her? “You must be joking! No chance. But three of my children love marmalade,” she says. All carry home supplies from their mum, including her daughter, Sunday Telegraph columnist Sophia Money-Coutts, “who is a very good customer”.
Would they bother to buy it if their mum wasn’t a producer? “I don’t know,” muses Deedes. Certainly, sales of marmalade among the younger generation have been dropping for decades. “I think the avocado has a lot to blame for that – my lot would probably have a mashed avocado, maybe with bacon and egg. Or revolting chocolate spread,” she adds.
It may be the intrinsic bitterness that puts millennials off marmalade, although given how trendy Negroni cocktails have become, it must be due a reboot. Anyway, a purely sweet marmalade makes no sense, says Deedes. “I tried one with no pith, and it was revolting. The specialness of marmalade is to do with the balance between the bitterness of the pith and the sugar, and that is probably the biggest challenge when you are making it,” she adds.
If our tastes have changed, so has marmalade. In Tudor times, it was a paste of quinces, spiked with nuts and spices, while recipes for orange-based versions, still thick and opaque, didn’t appear until 100 years later.
The more jellied marmalade that we would recognise arrived in the 18th century, and early 20th-century marmalade still tended to be a deep amber affair, the colour of chestnut honey, a far cry from the stained glass hues of modern versions.
This may have been down to slower cooking. “My aunt Margaret’s marmalade was particularly dark and glutinous – she would just put it on the Aga and forget about it. It was like a witch’s cauldron,” says Deedes. “It’s a newer thing, those very pale marmalades.”
Sugar levels have dropped, too, including in Deedes’s kitchen. “My mum always did a pint of pulp to a pound of sugar, but I measure the pulp and do three quarters of that in sugar,” she says. It’s possible to use even less, and the book includes a recipe with no sugar bar two tablespoonfuls of honey.
Growing up, the Deedes household was practically self sufficient – including honey, at least at first. “Mum had a beehive until Dad had one sting too many, collapsed and there were dramas with EpiPens,” remembers Deedes. “The honey would be labelled ‘rape’ for the flowers the bees fed on. One year a visiting teenager amended the labels with ‘pillage, murder, incest and arson’.”
Besides the hives, there were also ponies, chickens, and a house cow, which sounds like it was peacefully chewing the cud beside the kitchen table. In fact, the cow (always a Jersey) wasn’t actually allowed in the house. “It was known as a house cow because it was a domestic pet almost, who provided milk for the house,” says Deedes.
Milking was a daily ritual. “There would be a little circle of cats and dogs waiting for Mum to milk off the first bit, which always went to them in a bowl,” she adds. “If Mum was ill, I used to ring up the school, aged about 11, and say I couldn’t go in because I had to milk the cow, which was true enough.”
The cow kept the household in milk, butter and cream. “There was always a big bowl of fresh milk waiting to be skimmed,” recalls Deedes. “We were very lucky. As much as we longed for proper shop-bought Kit-Kats and white bread, it was a good start.”
Not that all the family were on board. “My elder brother Jeremy refused to eat the butter,” she reveals. “He used to sniff it in a rather censorious way and always made sure there was Anchor butter for him.”
This Good Life idyll was down to Deedes’s mother, Hilary, who had been in the Land Army and was well ahead of her time in embracing organic food, home-baked bread and sustainable living.
This extended to the blue tissue paper wrapped around the Christmas clementines being carefully folded and placed in the downstairs loo. “One of my friends was a bit confused by that,” laughs Deedes. “ ‘What was it doing in the loo?’ she said. ‘Did you have blue bottoms?’ I said, ‘Yes, of course.’ ”
These days, Deedes’s animals are limited to a Jack Russell called Beano, who is “of no productive use at all” and chickens who are “very productive, actually, and very entertaining – I love watching them”. Not enough to distract her from preserve-making though. “Making good marmalade takes concentration,” explains Deedes.
“You have to use your senses. Listen to it: it goes all whispery and seethes when it is nearly there. But then sometimes it tricks you – so you never quite know. But that’s part of what’s enjoyable about making it. You can’t just switch off. It does need a bit of input.” No wandering off to hit a few golf balls then, or whatever Dad did.
Lucy Deedes’ marmalade is available by mail order from lucydeedes.com
- It is vital that your jars are sparkling clean, so they need to go in a hot dishwasher and then in the oven to sterilise them. And lids as well – it’s amazing how many people use crusty old lids (you can buy replacement lids from lakeland.com).
- There’s no need to use a paper disc on the top of the marmalade: plastic-lined lids do the job on their own.
- Let the marmalade cool a little before potting up, otherwise the peel will float to the top of the jars “like goldfish feeding in a pond”. Don’t let it cool too much though, or you will get air bubbles.
- No time to make marmalade when the Sevilles are in the shops? Freeze them, and defrost whenever suits you. “It softens the peel but it does slightly deplete the pectin, so add a lemon to jazz up the set,” says Deedes.
Marmalade French toast
A very slightly indulgent breakfast sandwich.
Prep time: 5 minutes | Cooking time: 5 minutes
- 2 slices of white sourdough bread
- 1 heaped tbsp marmalade
- 2 eggs
- 1 tbsp double cream
- Tiny pinch of dried rosemary
- 1 tsp sugar
- Knob of butter
- Spread one of the bread slices with the marmalade and sandwich together.
- In a bowl, whisk together the eggs, cream, dried rosemary and sugar.
- Dip the sandwich in the mixture, soak well and turn over.
- Melt the butter in a pan and cook the sandwich for a couple of minutes each side. Cut in half to serve.
The Little Book of Marmalade by Lucy Deedes is available now (HQ, £9.99). Order your copy from books.telegraph.co.uk.