Food writer tells all about marmelade

Tuesday October 23, 2012


Elizabeth Field, a former Eagle food writer for a dozen years in the late 1980s and the ‘90s, has just come out with a new cookbook, "Marmalade: Sweet & Savory Spreads for a Sophisticated Taste."

A whole book, 192 pages, just about marmalade?

Granted, it is a sweet little square, 7 1/4-inches by 7 1/4 inches. You want to pick it up, hold it, look into it. And, once you do, it lies flat, which is important for a cookbook.

Still ...

But Field makes the story of marmalade enticing and natural rather than esoteric. She gently covers her subject in a straightforward style, including its history, interesting and clarifying anecdotes, ingredients, equipment and recipes.

Right off, she tells her readers that marmalade is the same as any sweet jelly or preserve and "There is no right or wrong way of making marmalade."

In her brief introduction, she tells how she came to love marmalade as an adult while working for The Eagle. One of her neighbors in Canaan,where she still lives, invited her to sample the marmalade he was making one winter day in 1997.

Last weekend, Field said, "When I was growing up, I didn’t used to like it. It’s one of those things many people don’t like. You think, ‘OK, I don’t like marmalade.’ Then you taste real, homemade marmalade and you find that you do."

Her neighbor’s house was filled with the smells and steam of simmering oranges. They ate his fresh marmalade with buttered toast and crumpets and cups of tea and Field was hooked.

"It was a gustatory revelation," Field wrote.

"It’s a food lesson, too -- these things you think you really don’t like, maybe you really do," she said in conversation. "It was something I really thought I didn’t like until I saw someone making it. I was so taken with it because you can’t make jam in the winter."

That same year, Field put a notice in a Scottish newspaper asking for marmalade recipes, stories and memories. This was before the Internet ruled. She got back handwritten letters, many from older people. She traveled to Scotland and England that same year, visiting home marmalade makers and collecting her own marmalade experiences.

"That’s how long this book has been in process," Field noted.

While writing for many publications including The Boston Globe, The New York Times, Gastronomica, Saveur and some media in Ireland, Field decided to go back to school to study gastronomy.

The subject covers a lot of territory. It is the art and science of eating well and the impact of food on cultures historically. And more.

"I learned about it," she said. "I’d been a food writer for a long time. I thought, ‘This sounds like a good way to deepen my knowledge of food, why people eat what they do.’ There aren’t very many places you can go to get it [a degree in gastronomy]."

So Field and her husband, Bruce, ??? went off to South Australia for a couple of years where she got her master of arts degree in Gastronomy.

"It’s not just cooking. It’s more anthropological," she said. "Some of the theory behind it."

"It was a way of learning about history. I was never into history in school. It’s given me a different way of looking at food. It’s much easier to understand food, now. You think about food; it tells so much about the culture people live in."

All this time, marmalade thoughts were still part of Field’s life. During her gastronomy studies at the University of Adelaide, the capital of South Australia, she discovered an important use for the detailed contemporary anthropological information she had been gathering.

"Then," she said, "after the study, we had to do a dissertation. I thought, ‘Marmalade!’"

Marmalade has a long history starting with the ancient Greeks then the Romans who used it medicinally. It moved around the Mediterranean from North Africa with the Moors and into Spain and Portugal.

For most of it’s history, marmalade was made from quinces and honey. The word "marmalade comes from the Portuguese word for quince. Quince, citrus and a few other fruits (apples, cranberries and currants) all contain a lot of pectin which causes them to gel easily and firmly.

It didn’t exist in England until a few years after Columbus discovered America. And oranges didn’t come into the marmalade story until the Scots imported bitter Seville oranges in the 18th century.

"Marmalade tells the history of the British Empire," Field explained. "Marmalade became important because the English were the dominant leaders in the sugar industry in places like the Caribbean, Barbados. It tells so many stories."

First a revelation, then a dissertation, now a book.

"If you go to Ireland and England and Scotland," she said, "marmalade is like peanut butter is here, Over there, people are really tied to this tradition of making marmalade in the middle of winter and 30 percent of them are men. Making marmalade in England and Scotland is considered very manly, like barbecuing in U.S. And they don’t like the commercial marmalade: it’s too this or it’s too that, it’s too sweet or it has too much pectin or corn syrup or it’s full of preservatives."

"Marmalade" begins with the details of what is needed for marmalade making.

There is a chapter with recipes for original, traditional marmalade styles made with quince; one on citrus marmalades; marmalades made with fruit other than citrus, like cherries or rhubarb; more exotic marmalades made from passion fruit or coconut; tomato or red onion or other savory marmalades; chapters with recipes for savory or sweet dishes using marmalade like chicken salad or desserts; and a last chapter on breads that go well with marmalades.

Field gives directions for water-bath processing the finished jars of marmalade for five minutes which she explains that the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends, but she, herself, does not always do. The information can be found online.

More than once, Field has participated in marmalade festivals, fundraisers showcasing competitions for the best marmalades, best marmalade breads, best marmalade sandwiches.

"I so enjoyed the Marmalade Festival," she said of one in England a few years ago. "It was like going into a total Marmalade World. I tried telling some of my friends about it -- the ladies in the white coats from the WI; the demonstrations; the hundreds of jars of marmalade and the Paddington Bear sandwich-filling competition. But it was hard, I think, for them to really get it. Just so English, I guess!"

"It’s totally weird but it’s totally marvelous," she said brightly.


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