You're researching marmalade?" asks my taxi driver, amused at such reverence for a commonplace condiment, as we head out of Glasgow. I reply that to me there is nothing ordinary about this transformation of bitter oranges and sugar—that it seems nothing short of an alchemical miracle. "Well, you've come to the right place," he says, adding proudly, "My wife makes marmalade too."
I am on the way to Mo Scott's Earlshill Farm in Lochwinnoch, some 20 miles southwest. My quest began when, living in upstate New York, I wrote to the Sunday Post in Dundee—one of the legendary capitals of marmalade—asking for recipes and anecdotes. I received nearly 90 replies from all over Scotland, enclosing recipes for marmalades as familiar as bitter orange and as esoteric as kumquat. Many of my correspondents were eager to share their stories, so I set out on a pilgrimage to hear them.
"You've got to grab those sevilles when they appear in the markets," Mo Scott, a tall brunette standing behind a blue Aga stove, tells me when I reach her farm. She explains that the sour oranges (Citrus aurantium) that give traditional marmalade its distinctive bite usually arrive in January (elsewhere they can appear anytime between December and March) and are quickly snapped up.
Following her mother's recipe, Scott scrubs the oranges clean, quarters them, places the seeds in a muslin bag, and finely shreds the fruit. She then places the oranges and seeds in a kettle, covers them with water, and soaks them overnight. The next day, after boiling the mash for two hours to soften it and intensify its flavor, Scott removes the seeds, weighs the pulp, and stirs in an equal ratio of sugar. "For snap", she says, she adds puréed pippin apples and ginger. The mixture is boiled for another 25 minutes, until it reaches the setting stage, and is spooned into sterilized jars. "It's all about chemistry,'' declares Scott, pointing out that as long as one keeps to the equal ratio of sugar to pulp, marmalade can accommodate some improvisation—not just apples or ginger but lemon juice for zing or treacle for rusticity and color. Unfortunately, I can't wait for Scott's dense, rich creation to cool, but I take some jars away with me.
A few hours later and three miles away, in Lochwinnoch High Street, I visit Margaret Cooper, 83, a delicate-featured lady with a ready smile, and her friend May Bowald, 84, round faced and chubby. (Sadly, Cooper has since entered a nursing home, and Bowald passed away a few months later.) They're drinking tea and eating brown bread with marmalade. Though Cooper's days of making dozens of jars of marmalade for church sales are over, she continues to make bitter orange marmalade for herself, using Ma Made, a prepared pulp, which still allows her to personalize her batch. Confessing a weakness for tart marmalades, Cooper recalls the prewar years, when she worked in the wool mills and a divine aroma would waft from the nearby Robertson & Son jam factory. "I still buy Robertson's lemon marmalade," she states quietly.