Seville, to most people, suggests Spain’s shimmering heat, smoldering flamenco, Moorish architecture, Bizet’s “Carmen” and terrific tapas. To most Brits, Seville means oranges. The trees adorn the city’s streets, their leaves deep green and glossy, their branches heavy with fruit in January and February. These are bitter oranges, Citrus aurantium var. amaro, not the sort to squeeze for juice but the kind destined for orange marmalade, that indispensable, bittersweet component of any self-respecting British breakfast.
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Citrus fruits are thought to have landed on Mediterranean shores during the 10th century via a circuitous route from China. The Romans — responsible for many of the finest fundaments of European food and wine — brought them to Spain, and the Arabs planted them widely throughout Al-Andaluz (modern-day Andalusia) both for ornamental and edible use.
From about 1770 — soon after James Lind made a groundbreaking discovery that citrus fruits helped prevent scurvy among sailors — regular shipments of oranges began to arrive in Britain thanks to the MacAndrews shipping line, whose small, speedy schooners plied regularly between Liverpool and Seville. By the mid-19th century, MacAndrews was specializing in citrus transport between Britain and the Iberian Peninsula.
In 1929, the year of the Ibero-Americana Exhibition, Seville’s streets sprouted yet more orange trees. They received a further boost in the 1960s, when the bitter orange became the firmly established urban tree of choice, valued for its compact size, its vibrant fruits and its exotically perfumed flowers.
Choice of the Brits: Seville orange marmalade
By the 1970s there were said to be about 5,000 trees; nowadays there are estimated to be more than 25,000. The trees are loved by the Sevillanos for their beauty, their fragrance and — not least — for the shade they cast in summer when temperatures regularly climb to 40 C (104 F). But the fruit is hardly used at all locally. Instead, about 90% of the crop goes to the U.K. for marmalade.
There are many recipes, but this one, which involves boiling the whole fruit before shredding it and cooking it down to a rich consistency with sugar, is simple and delicious. Bitter oranges are indispensable; sweet oranges, or even a mix of sweet with lemons, will not give the same result. In Europe they have a short season, though in the U.S. and Mexico the window is longer. You can also find them online or at Caribbean or Mexican markets (naranjas agrias in Spanish).
Seville Orange Marmalade
You can break down this recipe into several steps, timing each to your convenience. First, cook the fruit whole until soft, then cut in half, remove and reserve the pith and pips (they will contribute pectin that helps with setting) and shred the peel. Finally, boil the whole thing with water and sugar until it reaches the setting point.
Makes 8 (1-pound) jars
3.3 pounds (1.5 kilograms) Seville oranges (about 12)
9 cups (2 kilograms) white sugar
2¼ cups (500 grams) brown sugar
1. Wash the fruit. Put it whole in a preserving pan and add enough water to cover it by about 2 inches.
2. Bring to a boil and simmer until the oranges are quite soft and a fingernail will easily pierce the rind, about 1 hour.
3. Lift the fruit out of the water with a slotted spoon, and pour the water into a measuring jug.
4. Cut the fruit in half, scoop out all the pith and pips.
5. Put pith and pips in a small square of muslin, close up into a bag and tie tightly with string.
6. Chop the rind (finely or coarsely, as you wish) and put it back in the pan.
7. Measure out 8 cups (2 liters) of reserved cooking liquid, adding more if necessary to bring it up to the quantity needed.
8. Pour the liquid over the chopped rind and drop in the bag of pith and pips.
9. Add the white sugar and brown sugar, stir and bring the pan to a rolling boil. It should boil vigorously, but watch so it doesn’t boil over.
10. Put a small, empty saucer in the freezer to check the setting point.
11. Boil marmalade for 40 minutes to 1 hour — precise timing depends on your heat source — or until the marmalade is reduced by about one-third and the last drops from a spoon will fall away slightly stickily. Test for setting by tipping a little into the chilled saucer and draw a finger through the marmalade; it should leave a distinct channel (like Moses parting the Red Sea) and the surface of the marmalade will wrinkle slightly. If it does not, continue to boil.
12. Once the setting point is reached, pour the marmalade into clean, warm jars and cover while still hot.
Top photo: Jars of Seville orange marmalade. Credit: Sue Style