Contrary to popular belief, we're not always 'under the Tuscan sun' in Tuscany. Right now I'm glued to the cosy warmth of the aga - along with the cat and our two maltese terriers. My excuse for not joining my husband in the grey 'no-ness' of today's February overcast skies and icy winds, to plant garlic, is that I have two jam pans of marmalade on the go. I fool myself that it's like bottling up sunshine.
I have made marmalade for as long as I can remember. It was the first 'jam' I ever made. Almost the first anything I ever made. A jam thermometer was the first piece of kitchen equipment I acquired when going solo.
Marmalade is much much more than the actual making, for me. The ritual and aromas are a deep-rooted part of my past, memories of home and my mother making it for the Women's Institute, of my two 'adopted' aunts deep in the Somerset countryside, to whom I would escape at weekends from London and glory on pushing open the rectory door to be greeted by this familiar and deeply nostalgic aroma.
In England I would always wait with anticipation the appearance of Sevilles on the fruit stalls. In Italy I couldn't find Sevilles. Instead, a window opened up on a whole citrus culture with all its exciting gastronomical potential. The fact is, in Italy, there is no need for oranges from anywhere else in the world. The country is happily and marvellously supplied with home varieties from November through to May. And what varieties: there are oranges for every preference and every recipe.
My emotions go completely out of orbit in the seasonal market presence of piles of tiny little blush-skinned 'moro' freshly arrived from Sicily (accompanied by a couple of romantically handsome Sicilian growers). Their freshly squeezed juice is as red-black as their name implies, or blood-red 'sanguinellos', and next to them, mountains of dimple skinned leafy 'tarocco', or navels, with their miniature belly-button-like new fruit inside and the tantalizing vanilla flavoured nectar of the mysterious 'vaniglia apireno'. Without fail I way over-buy, led on by their cheering colours and culinary potential. My husband is constrained to drink sizeable quantities of juice for several weeks. I notice, however, that he doesn't complain. And I siimply love to see baskets and tubs of cheerful orange still-lifes around the house, while the fruit is waiting its turn in the kitchen.
While in season, oranges become central to our recipes. Marmalade of course, chocolate dipped candied peel, orange marmalade cake, sticky orange syrup chocolate cake, caramel rice with orange and quince, Sicilian influenced fennel and orange salad and fish with oranges, and my hunter neighbour's wonderful Tuscan duck with orange.
My first shopping trip for oranges in Tuscany was in summer. Fresh from London and supermarket supplies, my whole mind-set was shaken into rethink, on discovering that they were unavailable in July. Oranges were quite literally, the key that opened the door to the secret of Italian cooking for me: Fresh, seasonal ingredients with traditional round the year recipes. I was entralled, captivated, completely converted and have embraced this way of living and cooking ever since.
Marmalade was not particularly popular in Tuscany until fairly recently. My orange marmalade which I serve with cheese was viewed as an English eccentricity. Now I am constantly asked for the recipe. It is straight from the Somerset rectory of my adopted spinster-sister aunts. The best ever. My tribute to their culinary passion. My gift to my Tuscan friends.
9 organic bitter-sweet thick-skinned oranges
1.5 kg sugar
Good slosh of whisky or grappa (optional)
Nine oranges works for me because they sit snugly in one layer in my jam pan.
Wash the oranges thoroughly. Then place them whole, in the jam pan and cover with boiling water. They will bob around, just make sure all sides have been in contact with the boiling water. Three minutes will do to sterilize them. Discard all the water. The oranges are now ready for use.
Replace the oranges without doing anything to them, back in the jam pan. Cover with boiling water. Simmer, turning occasionally, until pricking them with a fork, the skins are aldente soft. If the water evaporates too much while cooking, add more boiling water.
Turn off the heat and allow the oranges to cool down. Reserve what remains of the cooking water. Measure this and top it up as necessary with cold water to a total of one and a half litres.
When the oranges are cool enough to handle cut off the head and tail and discard, then cut them into quarters and slice each quarter very finely width wise - skin and pulp. Pop back in the pan. When all the oranges have been sliced and are in the pan together with the reserved water, add the sugar and place on a gentle heat stirring occasionally until the sugar has dissolved.
At this point turn up the heat and boil until the mix begins to thicken. Add the whisky about 10 minutes before the marmalade is ready. Test either with a jam thermometer or by spooning a small quantity onto a plate and cooling it. You're looking for wrinkles when pushed.
Sterilize jars and caps by placing them in the dishwasher or the oven. Fill the jars and screw the tops on firmly. I now finish off in the Italian way by popping the filled sealed jars back in the pan with tepid water, bringing this to the boil and letting it boil for 20 minutes. This does not spoil the marmalade but is an extra safety measure for conserving.