MARMALADE is old. The first recipes were recorded in the 16th century. But it's starting to show its age.
Today, the carbohydrates in marmalade are the equivalent of butter and animal fat in the 1970s, when the whole countryside suddenly had high cholesterol and margarine and vegetable oil were seen as the solutions.
These days, carbohydrates, especially sugar, are the baddies. But no one has told Paits.
Paits and I have a lo-o-o-ng friendship that started way before the lawyer came along and seduced me. Paits is large and round and cheerful; also overwhelmingly enthusiastic. He's so enthusiastic that words can never quite capture the full register of his verve.
Paits lives in the Bay and he knows the real citrus farmers in the Kirkwood area. He calls at the start of the citrus season: “Girlfriend, I've got a bit of citrus for you for marmalade. It was an absolutely fabulous year! Are you just going to take Rex Union or do you want some Cara cara too? I'll sommer send it on to you later today, then you'll have it the day after tomorrow."
How do you say no to such enthusiasm? Besides, the Le Roux girls hardly ever say no, except sometimes, as the lawyer found out.
Never again – until next time
So, I willingly put my foot in the trap and a day or so later half a truckload of citrus arrives on my stoep. Because Paits never sends only what you agreed to. This time there are limes and naartjies as well.
The thin-lipped lawyer carries the stuff to the kitchen without uttering a word. Okay, okay: to the kitchen and to the dining room and to the living room. The load consists of lots of boxes and bags.
There's a side of me that likes cooking jam, that marvels at the smells and memories it evokes, and at the alchemy that transforms sugar and fruit into jars full of sunshine. And during weekends a late breakfast consisting of scones or crumpets with citron or green fig jam, or whatever the season has produced, is delicious.
But cooking marmalade requires time, attention and dedication. And every year I swear by the copper pot retrieved from the top of the cupboard that this year will be the last.
Until Paits' irresistible call next year.
Rex Unions are disappearing
I confess that it is not only about Paits' enthusiasm. It's also about the fact that he can get hold of Rex Union oranges. Because Rex Union and the Cape rough-skinned lemon are the only citrus fruits on the global Slow Food movement's South African Ark of Taste list of heritage plants that are threatening to disappear into the hole of oblivion.
And the chances are high that Rex Unions will disappear, because the plant material of citrus fruits may not be transported between provinces. That will be sad, because Rex Unions have an interesting history and make delicious marmalade.
The exact origin of Rex Unions has already disappeared down this hole, but there are two stories left which may have something to do with each other.
The most romantic is that George Wellington Rex (grandson of the famous George Rex of Knysna, who may have been an illegitimate child of King George III of you know where) commissioned its cultivation because he longed for the home country's marmalade. Other people say it was just the prosaic result of a cross between bitter orange and kinderkop (citrus fruit the size of a child's head) that was first observed on Rex's farm, Dunedin, in the Rustenburg district.
But you can still find these oranges in the Kirkwood area (that's where Paits gets them) and there is still at least one person who grows the trees. Perhaps old George found it here — hence the “Union" in the name — then planted it on his farm. Anyway, I made the most beautiful and delicious marmalade of my life using Rex Union oranges.
So if you feel like putting in the effort and want to experience great pleasure, try to get your hands on some Rex Union oranges, buy a little bag of sugar, and follow these steps.
Wash the oranges thoroughly and scrub them in hot water if they were covered with a layer of wax. Two oranges will reward you with a few jars of marmalade. A smaller batch will go faster and the end product will be bright orange.
Cut off the stem side of the fruit then cut it lengthwise so that you have eight wedges. Remove the pips and tie them in a piece of gauze.
Cut each wedge — the whole caboodle — into thin slices crosswise. For every cup of sliced orange, add two cups of cold tap water as well as the pips. Cover and leave overnight.
The next morning, put everything in a saucepan and cook until the orange slices are soft enough to crush between your fingers — about 15-20 minutes. Take out the seed bag and squeeze out all the liquid.
Now measure the pulp — everything together — and add one scant cup of sugar per cup of pulp. Return it to the saucepan and stir over low heat until the sugar has dissolved.
Turn up the heat and cook moderately quickly to setting point: 5°C above the boiling point of water where you live. (Setting point is that point where the marmalade, when cooled, forms a golden, soft jelly that is not runny or syrupy.) Stir occasionally throughout the cooking process. Skim off the yellowish-white foam. Cooking time will depend on the size of your batch, but it doesn't take long.
Sterilise the jars in the meantime: wash glass jars and their lids thoroughly (used jars are fine as long as they are free of strong flavours and the lids are intact and without rust) and put the jars in a lukewarm oven. Cover the lids with boiling water.
Let the marmalade cool for a few minutes before bottling it. Screw the lids on immediately when you have filled the jars and put them upside down for 10 minutes. This ensures that the fruit pieces are evenly distributed throughout the jelly.
By the way, if you can't get hold of Rex Unions, you can follow the same method for other citrus or even a mix of citrus fruits. Grapefruit, citron, bitter oranges and kinderkop produce bright, translucent marmalade, but oranges, lemons and narcissus do not — although they also make delicious marmalade. Don't worry if the marmalade looks runny in the jar — it sometimes takes a few days to set.
Slices, drinks and firelighters
I have quoted Mae West's “too much of a good thing can be wonderful" before, but sometimes too much is simply too much. And what do you do with a house full of citrus fruits?
Well, the limes started to spoil quickly because I didn't get them straight from the orchard and they weren't covered in wax. I cut the best of them into slices and froze them. They're handy delicacies with food and in drinks.
The rest, which was on the verge of spoiling, I pressed, strained to get rid of the fibres, heated just to boiling point and bottled in sterilised bottles. Off they went to the fridge. It's just as handy as store-bought orange or lime juice and tastes better.
In the Klein Karoo we use the peels of half-squeezed oranges as fire lighters. The husks are dried out in the sun then stored in net bags. The oil in the peel is flammable and works great for starting a sluggish fire. The Western Cape winter is simply too wet for such an operation. Alas.
From the lemons I made syrup for lemonade. Make it like this: Squeeze the juice from the lemons and add 750 g of sugar for every litre of juice. That's a scant cup of sugar per cup of juice. Heat slowly in a saucepan to dissolve the sugar until very hot, but not to boiling point — then you sacrifice too much flavour. Strain the syrup and bottle in sterilised bottles. Keep in a dark place. Diluted with water or sparkling water, it is a delicious, refreshing drink.
I had barely washed my hands after all my efforts when I received a text message from Paits: “Do you want more Rex Unions? I can get; we need to use now cause we won't be able to get again until next year."
This Le Roux girl's first reaction was to agree, but then I remembered the lawyer's face when he carted everything into the house and answered: “No thanks, Paits — I've bottled 41 jars and that's enough."
♦ VWB ♦
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