February. Groundhog Day. Valentine’s Day. John says it’s the longest month of the year. Maybe that’s because the two days it’s known for don’t have holidays attached. If Easter isn’t early, you’re looking at the whole of March before the next real vacation. Plus it’s dead of winter. Months of it behind you, months of it ahead. It’s enough to make the shortest days drag on and on.
The one thing that redeems this godforsaken month is the arrival of the Seville oranges, which, as marmalade aficionados the world over know, are the only oranges to use in marmalade.
Sevilles don’t look like much. They’re generally small, with a thick skin, little pulp, and tons of seeds. But like crabapples, which reveal their magic only when you make them into jelly, Seville oranges are loaded with pectin and packed with flavour. So much so that a scant six oranges is enough to make a dozen jars of marmalade. Six oranges, plus six pounds of sugar and three quarts of water. Now that’s concentrated flavour.
My grandmother used to make marmalade (and the booziest Christmas cake in the world). My favourite Aunt made marmalade (and Damson plum jam, which my uncle, Alex, always called “some damn plum jam”). Until a few years ago, my mom made marmalade. These days, it’s me who keeps the fires of tradition stoked.
Marmalade’s a lot of work, but then, most jams and jellies are. There’s removing the pulp and extracting the juice, chopping the rind into slivers and soaking it, simmering everything until it jells, preparing jars and lids, packing the marmalade, and cleaning up afterwards. It’s more than worth it, though, not just for the resulting ambrosia, but for the savings. Living poor, as we do in our household, one gets into the habit of spending time and energy instead of cash. I could, if I had bucks to burn, go out and buy a single pot of Dundee marmalade. But for the same amount of money, I can purchase oranges and sugar for twelve jars. Which, unlike the single pot of Dundee, I can share—another habit living poor instills.
I suspect, though, that the real reason I get excited about the arrival of the Seville oranges is just that: their arrival. Ever since agribusiness started its headlong rush toward globalization and the perpetual availability of so-called fresh produce, the notion of eagerly anticipating the seasonal arrival of fruits and vegetables has largely vanished from the North American urban consciousness. Mourning the loss may strike some as incipient old-fartishness. It’s not. It’s about remembering and valuing a timeless concept: delight.
Delight is not to be found in things that are easily and constantly available. Neither is it to be found in a surfeit of the second rate. Delight in fresh foods, for me at any rate, goes hand in hand with waiting for them, savouring them while they’re in season, and remembering them once they’re gone.
Proust said: “Anticipation is the surest form of pleasure. Who wants to burst into fulfilment’s desolate attic?” While biting into that first ripe strawberry of the year hardly counts as a desolate attic, it is true that half the pleasure is in the wait.
My mom loves to cook, and I was lucky enough to grow up in southwestern Ontario, which is rich in agricultural land. The yearly rotation of seasons when I was young centred more on what fruits and vegetables were available than on the temperature. Even winter had its imported contribution to make: not just the Seville oranges, but the luscious Fuerte avocados as well, which make the year-round Hass variety look like overgrown warts.
It all started near the end of April, when the race began to see which would show up first: the fiddleheads or the asparagus. Even in stores, fiddleheads remain a seasonal item, and asparagus used to be the same. You waited for it impatiently as winter drew to a close, then pigged out while it lasted. Afterwards, no more tender, tasty spears until next spring. And as for fiddleheads, well, no one in their right mind bought them. They were “wild” food. Gathering the furled fern fronds was, for many people, a family tradition, like Christmas or Thanksgiving. The shortness of the season (fiddleheads can vanish almost overnight) made the celebration of them that much more delirious.
After the asparagus and fiddleheads, the next anticipated delight was strawberries. Strawberries don’t ever ripen off the vine, which means the ones available year round in stores are unripe, sour frauds. I can’t imagine why anyone would eat them. Neither can I imagine not gorging on the real thing during their naturally, if regrettably, short season.
In Ontario, strawberries last from the middle of June till the beginning of July, when the raspberries start. To my childhood self, summer gained momentum with the raspberries. Every week thereafter heralded the arrival of treats untasted since last year. The first unfrozen green peas, still in their pods and in need of shelling. The first wax beans. The first Bing cherries. The first blue plums. The first fat cantaloupes and watermelons.
August brought about anticipation of the first corn of the season, along with huge, misshapen Beefsteak tomatoes and Freestone peaches. Other fruits proliferated on the dessert table: Bartlett pears, apricots, nectarines, black grapes. And, of course, the jewel in the crown of August, the blueberries. Only wild blueberries taste like blueberries. The year-long wait preceding their arrival was foreplay to the orgy of gluttony that ensued.
With autumn came the first new apples, the first new “keepers” (beets, turnips, parsnips, rutabagas), the explosion of squashes in dozens of shapes, sizes, and colours. The year was winding down, but far from over. Brussels sprouts and hardy cabbages sometimes lasted even past December’s early snow.
And once winter had settled in, there were always the Seville oranges to look forward to—admittedly not native, but a reminder, just the same, of the delights of seasonal produce, and cause for the hope of spring.
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It would be unfair of me to have mentioned marmalade without giving my mom’s recipe, so here it is. It comes from a cookbook put together by the Women’s Auxiliary of The Church of the Good Shepherd (Anglican) in San José, Costa Rica, which was my father’s parish back in the 1950s.
Seville Orange Marmalade
6-8 Seville oranges
6 lbs. sugar (approx. 14 cups)
12 cups water
Cut the oranges into quarters. Take out the pulp, with the seeds, and place in a bowl. Cover with 3 cups of the water.
Cut the quarter skins into halves lengthwise, then cut the skins into very thin strips the other direction. Cover with 6 cups of the water. Let stand overnight.
Next morning, boil the pulp and water gently for 10 minutes. Line a colander with cheesecloth, dump in the pulp, squeeze out all the juice, and set aside.
Again cover the pulp with 3 cups of water. Boil again, gently, for 10 minutes. Squeeze out juice as before.
Add the two lots of juice to the skins (and the water they’re in). Boil gently for one hour.
Lastly, add the sugar—gradually, a cup at a time, or the marmalade will be cloudy. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the temperature reaches 8 degrees Fahrenheit above boiling point (220 degrees Fahrenheit at or near sea level), or when the juice falls from a spoon in clear sheets.