When I read Luisa’s post on seville orange marmalade, her description of the tantalizing aroma in her apartment as the oranges cooked down took me straight back to December: orange peel candying on the stove and a house that smelled bright, sunny, freshly picked. Orange is one of my very favorite smells: citrus in general has a good showing in that category, but oranges take the winning spot over most anything, most days. It has been said a million times, but it is truth: oranges smell like sunshine would smell, if it only could.
But orange season is slowly coming to an end at our house, and along with it our love affair with citrus. Our backyard tree is done until next December, and the market picks are getting slimmer by the week. The grocery store, meanwhile, has started stocking some types of oranges without the “Grown in California!” signs: I’m not sure where they’re from, but they’re not from around here.
I’ve long appreciated that local food tastes better: I grew up with vegetable gardens, and my mom was part of bringing Farmers’ Markets to Berkeley when I was in elementary school. (To Berkeley! You’d think they would have been the first on that train, not waiting until the late eighties!) But it wasn’t until reading Wendell Berry in college that I started to get a real inkling of what local food meant for local people, particularly local farmers. Then Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver got me really uneasy about all the miles some of my food was traveling. The big agribusinesses were trucking (and flying) food from one side of the world to the other – and whatever calculous all this transporting was based on, it clearly wasn’t based on taking care of the earth, sustaining communities, or even feeding people good food. (I’m pretty sure there is a direct relationship between how far produce travels and how taste must be engineered out of it to allow it to travel that far.)
The idea of eat locally is, in some ways, an easy one here: Californians have arguably the world’s best access to local produce. Winter time means broccoli instead of tomatoes, but it doesn’t force us to rely on put-up summer crops while the ground sits frozen under a blanket of snow. Furthermore, a multitude of microclimates within any given region means we can grow most anything we want. Here in the Bay Area we have citrus and other sun-hungry crops, but also fog-loving artichokes and sweet mountain blueberries, crisp apples and delicate lettuces. Wine, olive oil, table grapes and herbs galore: all here, if not quite all the time.
But the flip side of that coin is that California is by far the country’s largest exporter of fresh produce. The lettuces used in restaurants in New York City, the cauliflower moms buy their kids in Michigan, the kale it seems everyone everywhere is eating – these exports are the underpinnings of a big chunk of California’s economy. We can produce year round (whether we should is a different question) and others cannot: basic supply and demand makes exporting all those mountains of lathed “baby” carrots irresistible. Take a trip on a highway, pretty much any highway in our state, and you are bound to see big refrigerated ag trucks. Most of them are headed east, loaded with produce that finds its flavor and nutrition dropping steadily with each fossil-fueled mile that it travels.
California might profit (at least superficially) from industrialized agriculture, but it doesn’t all originate here. Salinas is “The Salad Bowl of the World” (and also a food desert!) not just because of its ideal climate for factory-growing greens. It is also because monoculture is the deal our country has made with itself: California will grow lettuce for all, the midwest can be our breadbasket, everyone’s peaches can come from Georgia. Meanwhile, taxes continue to subsidize massive soy and corn crops that are taking over the vast majority of farmable land, and our vegetables guzzle petroleum instead of warm sun, fresh air, clean water.
Certainly economies of scale have a purpose, sometimes even with food. Even more certainly someone (or some corporation) is gaining a financial profit. But as we bring our food from ever farther away, we are losing more than we realize: tasty, nutrient-rich produce is perhaps the least of it. Our soil is dying, our understanding about where and how our food is grown is disappearing, and we have lost the shared experience of food as cyclical, as part of the specific place we live. When we can have Chilean strawberries all winter, does that first strawberry of the season really taste as good? Do strawberries even have a season anymore?
They do. Everything does. Even here, in the place where salad bowls can be filled year round. So as orange season comes to an end, I decided to try something new: making marmalade. As we see more and more of the sun each day, we won’t need the magic of citrus the way we do in deep winter. But in the meantime, much like tomato sauce made in summer, marmalade made in winter can be a keeper of memories, a reminder of all the brightness that comes along with winter’s dark.
A reminder that everything, everything has a season.
We try to eat locally, and it seems I’m always learning more about what that means and how best to do it. We attempt it because we think it’s the right thing to do – for our kids, our community, our taste buds. One way we try to stay seasonal, local, and seriously delicious is with community agriculture: Fifth Crow Farm, our organic, sustainably farmed, biodiverse CSA is still accepting new members for the season that starts in May. If you live somewhere between San Francisco and Palo Alto, it might be for you! Pick ups are at markets (San Mateo, Castro, Inner Sunset) or at locations in Hillsborough, San Mateo, Half Moon Bay, Menlo Park or at the farm in Pescadero. This will be our third year with them, and we can’t say enough good things: we love the food, the farmers, the weekly ‘farm update’ emails, even the routine and chit chat of our weekly pick up. This year, in addition to the optional pastured egg share, you can also opt in for local micro-climate honey from City Bees or local pastured meat (grassfed beef and lamb, pastured pork) from the Markegard Family.
We’re already excited for our first box in May.
Bitter orange marmalade has not always been my favorite. As a kid, I preferred sugary-sweet marmalades or, really, just regular jam thanks. It took a grown-up party with marmalade and cheese on crackers to get me interested in bitter oranges, but once I had those little appetizers, I was hooked. I’ve never before been tempted to make my own, both because I just recently learned about making fruit preserves and because I have a jam company that makes seasonal citrus marmalades that I love.
Two things happened to make me try it this year: first, my Aunt Linda (yep, the one who knew M.F.K.) sent me a slim, elegant volume on preservation: M.F.K. Fisher’s Annotated Edition of Catherine Plagemann’s Fine Preserving. I marked the marmalade recipe right off the bat, but secretly wasn’t totally convinced that a three-day preserve-making session was in my future. Then, marmalade recipes starting appearing all around me: on Food52, in Lucky Peach, and finally Luisa’s adventure, which sealed the deal. Luisa used, more or less, Nigel Slater’s recipe, which appeared to be nearly identical to the one that M.F.K. touted. I had my marching orders.
Traditional orange marmalade is made with Seville, or bitter, oranges. M.F.K. and Ms. Plagemann suggest that if you cannot get bitter oranges you use “clear golden-skinned California oranges” plus a few lemons, but with the caveat that “[Seville] marmalade really is best.” (I ordered Seville oranges here, as suggested by Lucky Peach - from California, though not technically my neighborhood).
[UPDATE: I checked with Bernard at the San Mateo Market, and for folks on the peninsula who want Seville oranges, the time is early December - he usually brings a few each Saturday for the first couple weeks of the month, but if you know you want more you can let him know in advance, a week before you want to pick them up. He said to me, "You know, they're really only good for making marmalade or for salt preserving." Marmalade, yes, but salt preserving?! Yes - like lemons! Next year.]
The flavor of the Sevilles is intensely sharp, bitter and sour – we used a couple leftover oranges in salad dressing and marinade, as we would lemons, but you probably would never eat these straight. (Though Jacob and Lucas tried and said only “Hmm.”)Because of their strongly bitter flavor, they get a long soak in water and then a grand helping of sugar. You cook it down (enjoy that smell). You’re left with bright, fresh, intensely orange fragrance and flavor that is grounded by bitter notes from the peel and pulp. It is a rather grown up taste. (Although I made some Parp-Tots using a cornmeal dough and marmalade filling … wow. And my kids gobbled those up.) Last week on my snack day I brought a jar of marmalade to the parent room at school with some Red Hawk and crackers, and that was good. But my favorite way to have it is in the early morning, on a skinny, crisp piece of toast, with a little butter and a cup of tea. Here comes the sun.
Bitter Orange Marmalade
Adapted from Fine Preserving, with additional insights from Luisa and Lucky Peach.
Note: this is a large batch, making 80+ ounces of marmalade. Your friends will love some, so go ahead and make it all.
~ 15 Seville oranges
5 pounds granulated sugar
First: make sure to wash your oranges very well, in warm water, to get any wax or other residues off of the peel!
Peel the thin colored layer of skin from ~ 15 Seville oranges. Cut this peel into strips as thin or thick as you’d like it to be in your marmalade (we went fairly thin). Put it into your largest pot, and cover with cold water (about 2 quarts).
Take the oranges and cut them in half, squeezing the juice from each into the pot with the peel. Once juiced, chop the oranges into pieces. Mash each piece by hand to get all the seeds out (set the seeds aside and reserve them). Once the segments are all de-seeded, chop the whole mess very fine with a large knife. (Alternately, you can run this through your food processor – the finer the chop, the finer the texture of your marmalade will be. We went with a hand-chop and a somewhat chunkier texture of finished product.)
Put the chopped up oranges into the pot. Tie the seeds up in cheesecloth (or use a spice ball a la Luisa), and add that bundle to the pot. Cover everything with cold water, cover the pot with a lid, then leave it to sit for 24 hours.
The next day, bring the pot to a boil and simmer slowly, for 1-2 hours, or until the peel has softened and become slightly translucent. While it is simmering, put a few small dishes in the freezer for testing the marmalade as it cooks.
Once the peel is softened, remove the seed bag from the pot. Carefully squeeze and scrape the bag to get all of the pectin/jelly-like stuff out of it and back into the pot. This will take a couple minutes.
Next, you’re going to add five pounds of granulated sugar to the pot (I know, it’s a lot, especially coming on the heels of this! But the oranges are very bitter, and the pot is very big) Stir well until it is incorporated. Then raise the heat to medium-high and bring the marmalade to the boil. Start testing* it after about twenty minutes – it will take between 15 minutes and 2 hours to cook, depending on how many seeds you had for pectin and how thick you like your marmalade.
Pour the marmalade into freshly washed jars, filling them to the brim, then slid a sanitized butter knife around the edge to release any trapped air. Wipe the rim of each jar with a clean white towel dipped in hot water (the white towel lets you make sure you got everything off – thanks to Ann for this tip!). Put the lids on and twist finger-tip-really-tight. Turn them upside down and let them cool, without moving them, for at least 12 hours. That will form a seal on the jar: it should be good to be kept for 12 months (or longer – per Lucky Peach, a jar of marmalade was recently opened that was 80 years old, and still quite nice!).
(Of course, if you’d rather, you can do as M.F.K. and Ms. Plagemann did, and seal your jars with “two thin coats of parrafin and a lid.”)
* To test marmalade: remove a cold plate from the freezer and place a dollop of marmalade on it. Let sit in the fridge for about 15 seconds then draw your finger through it – you should be able to see when it has 1. jelled and 2. reached the thickness that you like. My batch took about one hour, for a well-jelled and reasonably thick but quite spreadable marmalade. I put six small plates in the freezer and ended up needing all six, since I was a pretty avid tester.!