Lady Marmalade

The text across the shard of pottery says “Marmala”. The rest of the centuries-old stoneware jar is missing, presumably still buried somewhere here at Fort York where it has been sitting in the ground since the mid-1800s. We are told that children who visit the fort on school tours don’t know what marmalade is, which seems a terrible shame.

I am at the “Mad For Marmalade, Crazy For Citrus” event at Historic Fort York, the third annual event, produced by the fort and the Culinary Historians of Ontario, that celebrates all things marmalade.

This isn’t your typical Toronto food event – aside from myself and Sarah B. Hood of Toronto Tasting Notes, there are no bloggers, no writers, no “foodies” here for the free samples. Instead there are about 80 people, many part of the above-50 set, who are all here to learn – or share their knowledge – about that most delectable of preserves, marmalade.

And these folks are pretty hardcore. In fact, their dedication to the food scene, and preserving in particular, makes the average foodie look like a sad amateur. Many show up with samples of their own batches of marmalade to enter into the competition. Recipe sheets and handouts include references to historical cookbooks, right down to the page numbers and editions.

Marmalade is, of course, most commonly known as a preserve made with Seville oranges or other citrus fruit, although there are variations on this. The word originally referred to a preserve made with quinces, and vegetable marmalades (as we shall see later when we get to the marmalade contest results) are also popular. In terms of the standard orange marmalade, variations are noted between the Scottish version – that would be the one with the whole bits of peel and a generally more bitter flavour – and English marmalades where the peel is strained and mashed and the end product is sweeter.

After some opening remarks, we split off into groups and back out in the Saturday morning snowstorm. I follow Bridget Wranich of Fort York across the snowy field to a barracks room where she offers a seminar on candied peel – not exactly marmalade but a precursor to the stuff – where she goes through its history and use, handing out samples of various types so we can see the difference between the wet and dry versions.

Heading back to the main building for lunch I am able to sneak into the tail end of the seminar led by Shirley Lum of A Taste of the World Tours, entitled Marmalade with Asian Twists, where, in a room steamy with citrusy tang she hands me samples of kumquat and yuzu marmalade to try. Other seminars included judging marmalade quality, using marmalade in contemporary culinary delights, and a workshop on historic sealing techniques, one of which used to be a pig’s bladder. Turns out the folks from Fort York had a heck of a time getting these for the demonstration, despite their close proximity to the city’s only remaining pig abattoir.

Lunch is a church supper kind of affair, right down to the tickets we all received with our information packages at the beginning of the day. Marmalade chicken, citrus risotto and green salad with citrus dressing are paired with crusty rolls, and we dig into bread pudding with candied peel and custard sauce as well as tarts made with peach, pear or quince marmalade for dessert. It’s all really good and yes, the menus all reference where the recipes were sourced, the oldest being a shortbread recipe from 1833 from the breakfast snacks.

After lunch, we are treated to a history of marmalade in Canada by Mary Williamson, a cookbook collector. Williamson touches on the history of the preserve, including its import and various local and imported brands, and reveals the origins of the preserve as well as some of the variations on what was permitted – at one point people were encouraged to collect old banana peels from the garbage to make a banana marmalade.

There is a tasting of citrus-based drinks; a sherbert that tastes like a melted orange popsicle, then fabulous real lemonade, and then something called a Negus ice which is a frozen sample of port with lemon, sugar and nutmeg, and which quickly gets nicknamed the Portsicle.

Finally, the winners of the marmalade competition are announced. A green tomato marmalade takes first place in the vegetable marmalade competition, and it’s a tough decision in the Seville marmalade category. Sarah Hood is delighted when her grapefruit marmalade takes first prize in the “other fruit” division, and the final category is baked goods made with marmalade in which a gingerbread loaf made with candied peel and using marmalade instead of molasses wows everyone.

A small marketplace offers marmalades and preserves from Greaves and Lyndon Gardens, as well as baskets of Seville oranges. I’ve come as an observer but am leaving a convert; I can’t help but take home a basket of the bitter citrus to try my hand at making marmalade. I don’t know if my marmalade will be worthy of entering into the contest next year (it’s taking it’s good sweet time to set) but the day was a wonderful way to learn more about marmalade as well as hang out with some folks who are not just about eating and cooking the tasty food, but of preserving its history for generations to come.

The annual Fort York/Culinary Historians of Ontario marmalade event takes place each year at the end of February. Yes, you missed it for this year, but there are still Seville oranges available at specialty stores if you want to try your own.