Notes on...

The bittersweet truth about homemade marmalade

15 January 2022

9:00 AM

15 January 2022

9:00 AM

The spectrum of ‘bestowing homemade gifts on one’s friends’ ranges from giving to foisting. Pure giving is when you make something by hand especially for a particular person. Foisting is when you don’t let a friend leave your house before pressing a copy of your privately published memoir into their hands.

Where does homemade marmalade come on this spectrum? I think it comes nearer the benign ‘giving’ end than homemade jam, which is at the ‘foisting’ end, along with homemade sloe gin and nettle ale. It’s the difference between treasure-giving and glut-giving.

With marmalade, the driving force behind making the stuff is that you genuinely crave some, pouncing on the Sevilles as soon as they arrive in shops for their brief January window. That bittersweet taste of (in my case) Delia Smith’s Dark Chunky Seville Orange Marmalade, the recipe cut out from a 1993 Radio Times, has been deeply missed since last year’s batch ran out at the end of June, causing six months of privation during which I felt some annoyance at having given three whole jars of it away.


With jam, the driving force behind making it is that you have a tree buckling under the weight of old-fashioned fruit that can’t be eaten raw — damsons or quinces — and the only way to deal with the glut is to make it into vast amounts of jam. Having done that, what can you do next except give as much as possible away?

Has anyone ever made jam or marmalade without telling anyone about it? As well as being a private domestic act, it’s one of the most public things we do. We take photographs of the jars lined up. Those labelled jars say ‘I am the lucky kind of person who’s at liberty to set aside a whole Thursday in my kitchen with a preserving pan, butter muslin and cold saucers in the fridge’. To do this feels deliciously virtuous — even more so, perhaps, for the jam-makers with their locally sourced homegrown fruit than for the marmalade-makers who buy fruit flown in from Spain. To give the result away makes one feel dazzled by one’s own largesse.

But do your friends actually want your jam or marmalade, and do you actually want theirs? The general rule is that your own homemade preserve means far more to you than it does to the person you give it to. Again, marmalade fares better than jam in these stakes. You can verify this by looking at the contents of your own and your friends’ larders. In my experience, there’s not nearly as much unopened homemade marmalade lurking in larders. It has all been eaten up, as it is a rarer treasure.

It’s not that you think ‘I’ll never in a million years eat this’ when someone kindly gives you a jar of their homemade jam. It’s just that you somehow never quite get around to opening it. ‘The rule is, jam tomorrow, jam yesterday — but never jam today,’ the Red Queen barked at Alice, taunting her with the torture of a never–fulfilled promise. She was inadvertently expressing precisely what many of us feel about jam: a vague sense that we might want some in the future, a vague memory of having once craved it in the past, but a certainty that we won’t want any for tea today.

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