The quest for marmalade perfection

Marmalade two ways

After the sparkle and joy of December, January can be a bit of a drag. Edinburgh is a lovely city but January is still winter and daylight is in short supply. Added to that, my self-imposed New Year quest for health improvement and renewal can, all told, make it a month to endure or thole * rather than relish.

Page from a dictionary showing the definition of Scots word thole meaning to bear or to suffer
Thole

Enter marmalade making and its orange radiance to bring some sunshine.

January is traditionally marmalade month coinciding with the arrival from Spain of the bitter Seville oranges that make the best marmalade. You can make marmalade all year round using tins of pre-prepared fruit, or as I optimistically planned last year, by freezing the time-limited Seville oranges to use at a later date. But it’s the arrival of the fresh fruit from Spain into a grey January that really starts the buzz amongst marmalade aficionados.

When I first started marmalade making a few years back – my attempts could best be described as inconsistent. The end result usually tasted ok but often did not set ( marmalade sauce anyone ? ), and when it did set, the peel all stayed at the top and did not have the desired even peel distribution. So during Covid times, when others were mastering new languages or learning to crochet a blanket, I made it my mission to crack the marmalade code and achieve preserve perfection.


I bought several books on the subject (including unintentionally, one written in French), and a special thermometer to check for a set, and continued making marmalade and other jams with mixed results. Although the taste was usually good – it was hit or miss when it came to setting and achieving the right consistency still proved elusive.


Success only came when I was given some very useful advice from an expert preserves maker, Jaki at Perfectly Preserved. A conversation with Jaki via Instagram helped me to understand where I had been going wrong and she gave me some great advice.

A selection of recipe books stacked in a pile

Jaki helped me to understand the importance of watching the shape of the bubbles and how they change as the marmalade reaches the setting point. I would highly recommend following Jaki’s Instagram ( @perfectlypreserved ) for an easy-to-follow ‘how-to’ guide to making marmalade, or if you have no desire to make your own – her delicious marmalade and other tasty preserves including her amazing rhubarb are available to buy online here

Following these top tips, my marmalade started to look better and set nicely, and then later and again via an Instagram chum, I came across a marmalade master class by Vivien Lloyd. Vivien is another marmalade expert, her book First Preserves is an excellent guide with clear step-by-step instructions, and she has been a judge at the World Marmalade Awards so I was hoping for some insider knowledge.
At her zoom masterclass, she demonstrated her fail-safe approach to successfully making marmalade in small batches and was very generous in sharing her expertise, including for me busting the myth and mystery of testing for a set!

Testing for a set


Encouraged by my new found confidence in bubble recognition thanks to Jaki, and with Vivien’s top tips front of mind, I made a batch where the set was just right, the peel was evenly distributed AND it tasted delicious.

Encouraged by this – I thought I might enter the World Marmalade Awards and so in January 2022 – I parcelled up my chosen jar and posted it off to Dalemain in Cumbria more in hope than expectation.

Months passed and I had mostly forgotten about the competition- there is a long interval between submitting your entry and getting your result. I had seen lots of pictures of the judging earlier in the year but as I had heard nothing assumed I had been unsuccessful. Wind forward to June 2022 ( 5 months after my submission ) and I was surprised and delighted to receive a certificate in the post with a silver award. Yippee!

Limbering up – marmalade two ways

Encouraged by my success, I am contemplating entering the World Marmalade competition again this year, but feel more nervous – reckoning beginner’s luck won’t be repeated and as is my way – I am now overthinking my marmalade making.

When I was in peak marmalade-making frenzy – and buying up Seville oranges beyond my needs – I froze some of them thinking I would make marmalade in the summer – or maybe a second attempt at making Diana Henry’s Seville orange tart, (a true Labour of love I had made once before with regular oranges). This time I could use the real McCoy.

As it turned out my summer was spent making a wedding cake for my daughter and as our stocks of marmalade were nowhere near depleted, the frozen Seville oranges rattled about in the freezer taking up space until the other day when it occurred to me I could use them to make a test batch of marmalade before attempting my entry for the awards.

By way of limbering up my marmalade-making muscles – and using the aforementioned frozen Seville oranges, I made two different types of marmalade. The first I made following the whole fruit method and demerara sugar ( Hugh’s marmalade recipe from Pam the Jam ) and for the other, I broadly followed my previous year’s award-winning recipe where you juice the fruit, shred the peel, then soak it overnight before cooking the next day and using white cane sugar.

Both marmalades turned out very well but were quite different. The whole fruit recipe using demerara sugar and a thicker cut of peel is darker and has a more robust flavour. I think this is sometimes called Oxford style. In some ways, it is easier to make because the peel is softer to cut when cooked and the flavour is good, but I enjoy the meditative process of juicing fruit and slicing the peel before soaking overnight or longer.
Overall I prefer the marmalade made by the soaking method – it is fresher and has a more lemony taste which is more to my liking and I think it looks prettier.


Using the frozen Seville oranges did not make much difference to the recipe I followed. I read afterwards that freezing can reduce the level of pectin and more fruit or lemon juice should be added to help achieve a set – but I did not change anything.

I noticed that with the frozen fruit – the peel took a bit longer to soften using the whole fruit method and the peel was not as bouncy when I was cutting the peel for those I made using the overnight soak-and the end result was fine.

I don’t think either of these test batches is good enough to enter the competition, but making them was a useful trial run before I attempt my ( fingers crossed ) award-winning entry.



On doing new things

This weekend I made a Tik Tok and drank a Negroni and both of these were firsts for me, or strictly speaking the Negroni was a first time enjoying a properly made Negroni at home – surprised it has taken me so long to embrace this cocktail du jour.

These accidental firsts are not part of an active quest to do new things or me ticking off a bucket list, more a reflection of my butterfly mind and a preference to hop, skip, and jump to the new to avoid doing all the boring old stuff I need to deal with.

Wind back to a couple of weeks ago when the sun was shining in Edinburgh & inspired more by optimism than the reality I bought a couple of cute tins of ready-made Negroni – thinking to enjoy these outdoors as a pre fish supper aperitif. This story has, as many weather dependent stories do in Scotland, a rather muted conclusion when the clouds rolled in from the hills and the appeal of drinking or dining Alfresco evaporated.

Blossom watching at the Meadows

Against the plummeting temperatures and grey skies,the tiny cute tin of Negroni was a ray of sunshine- the contents were delicious straight up and made a refreshing long drink with sparkling water added.

Pocket Negroni

So this weekend with research made on the perfect serve ( Stanley Tucci food memoir – Taste My Life Through Food page 9 ) – and ingredients purchased, my husband was appointed barman /mixologist. He created a splendid Negroni even if we had a bit of an exchange of views over some of the finer details around the correct glass to use and whether it was over ice or without.

I am so late to the party on the Negroni front and is odd to have missed out on this joyous experience for so long – what was I thinking? Maybe I missed the cocktail memo or I was washing my hair or just not paying attention. Regardless of the reasons for the oversight I am now happy to raise a glass to this wonderful late discovery. ( and as a note of caution to myself and any new to this delicious cocktail – Negronis are deceptively strong ) ūü•ī

Cheers !

Cheers

So to the Tik Tok – my daughter was home & so on hand to provide instruction and a steady hand for filming. Dinner was to be lamb with peas, onions and vermouth, a Diana Henry recipe from her book Simple (another first, trying this recipe) and I thought it a good subject for Tik Tok.

Leg of roast lamb with peas and onions
Lamb with peas, vermouth, and onions

Now and again I make amateur recordings of the food I am cooking and post these on Instagram stories. My filming style might be generously described as ‘unpolished’ and the finished output depends on various factors including – how behind schedule I am, how many glasses of wine the cook has enjoyed ( I do channel my inner Keith Floyd ), and whether I am making the recipe for the first time. Readers – do remember to read the recipe all the way through.

Diana Henry – cookery book

I have no specialist kit to speak of other than my phone and my husband is usually watching football so it’s usually a lone effort,without tripods or flattering lighting. I tend to film in between cooking & often miss lots of steps, and navigating the fine line between verisimilitude and burning dinner is quite the balancing act.


The end result is rarely a ‚Äėhow to‚Äô guide, more a cook along and sharing.

My daughter Ellen who is almost a millennial and naturally a digital native, is at ease with phone technology, but more than that she has a really good eye for photography and infinite patience when working with her dear old Mum.

Ellen was both art director and videographer for Tik Tok number 1 – but she did give me small tasks to complete unaided – like choosing the music and cooking the lamb.

For a first attempt using some of the easier Tik Tok functions and effects,I was quite pleased with the finished film and it may have opened up a whole new set of distractions for me from the eternal unfinished ‚Äėto do‚Äô list.

The finished film is hereūüĎá

Tik Tok

First run in a while

Contrary to the blog description, I have not been mostly talking about running, or to be more accurate I have not been talking about anything for quite a while- a full year since the last post.

Nor have I been running as often as I used to – so today I did both.

I went for a short run – saw an early yellow flower & thought I might as well break the writing drought.

Running Groundhog Day

Three years ago I ran a marathon and 2 weeks ago I ran for 8 minutes as I embarked once more on the couch to 5k journey.


It’s running Groundhog Day on my quest to regain my fitness and be able to run like I used to pretty much every weekend for the past 10 years.

I used to run so often that even I was bored of my Facebook posts – yes, guilty as charged- I was that person who just had to share my post-run,endorphin filled euphoria with you, regardless of whether or not you might care.

But the past couple of years the wheels have kind of fallen off my running bus as a combination of injury, lack of opportunity then latterly recovery from surgery, meant my running mileage dwindled.

During lockdown after developing a serious case of runners envy – I acknowledged that if I wanted to get back into running I was going to have to start over.

So in June, like many others before me , I downloaded the Couch to 5 k running app and with the mellifluous tones of Jo Whiley guiding me I started to make progress .

All was well until week 7 run 2 when disaster struck and my knee gave up the ghost and I had to hobble home. So once more running was abandoned and as we were still in lockdown it was tricky to see a physio, so I had to put running on the back burner.

Wind forward to October and I was back at the gym – swimming but not doing much else and eventually made the effort to get an online consultation with a physio. He diagnosed my dodgy knee as a tendon problem – gave me some exercises and more importantly the ok to go back to running.

So after a few trial runs – I reset the app and started right back at the beginning.

Let’s see if I can make it to the week 9 finish this time.

New year, same me and the search for jam perfection.

I do see the start of a new year as a time to review and reflect. I don’t make resolutions as such but I usually think of a few ‘goals’ or things the old me might like to achieve in the next 12 months.
This loose collection of paths to self-improvement might include some new activities to try in the coming year and will always include an optimistic commitment to trying to get better at some of the things I do already.

Practice makes perfect and all that.

Getting back into writing regularly is on my list, having pretty much kicked this blog into the long grass in the past year. I have got out of the habit, and now my writing is reduced to social media posts, work emails, and the odd business report.

Union canal Edinburgh in afternoon light

Aside from an intention to keep writing, following on from a recent batch of marmalade making – next on my list is a quest to get better at making jam- not with a view to becoming a professional preserver, but more to crack the elusive nut of getting my jam to set.

On paper, making jam and marmalade is an easy process Рyou combine the right ratio of fruit, sugar and sometimes water, heat it to the temperature of jam setting point then Ta Da! It sounds simple, but while my jams and marmalade usually taste good, they are often very runny and the process of knowing when it has reached setting point is a bit of a mystery. 

sunset through the trees

Some of this is a fear of the pan boiling over – and so to avoid this, I¬† don’t have the temperature high enough – or when it is boiling a fear of letting it boil too long in case it overcooks,( having once made blackberry jam that was like industrial strength glue).

Recipe books offer instructions and guidance, but rarely give much detail around timings. I suppose it is because as with most cooking, there are unknown variables relating to your own kitchen and equipment so success comes through trial and error and accumulated knowledge.

Apparently, there is a magical knack of knowing when the bubbles in the pan have changed – and recognising this I imagine only comes with practice.
As I only tend to make jam or marmalade once or twice a year – reading the jam bubble runes is a skill not yet mastered. This year I had to reboil marmalade when after cooling it still looked more like orange soup than a breakfast conserve. So after that near disaster, I bought myself a jam pan and a thermometer.

Today I gave my new pan and thermometer combo a test drive – making scarlet chilli and red pepper jam, a recipe from Diana Henry’s book Salt, Sugar Smoke.¬† Intrigued by the prospect of making the evocatively named scarlet jam, I set forth on a new path in my preserving journey – as I have never made jam with peppers or attempted any kind of savoury relish before.


It was an easy recipe to follow, with only a few ingredients and it looked beautiful bubbling in the pan as the peppers and chilli transformed from raw ingredients to jam.
As always it took longer than I expected for it to reach setting point, but this time I persevered, even letting it rise above the mystical 104.5 C.¬† Using both my thermometer and the wrinkle test as guidance I studied the bubbles, stared into the glossy pot and followed my instinct ūüėȬ†


I don’t imagine I will ever win any jam making contests – but it tastes good and looks like it will set.
Bravo to me !

oatcake , cheese and chilli jam

uplifting autumn days

Some days it’s just so good to be outside and yesterday was one of those days.

I did a short lunchtime run – or more accurately half run /half walk – in the hills close to where I live. Autumn is such a beautiful season, the light was perfect and after a weekend of blustery rain, it was lovely to run without a breath of wind and alongside mirror flat waters.

These are the days when anything seems possible and being outside is a joy.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder – how to rekindle my running love ?

bit of a story follows so maybe get a cup of tea first ūüôā¬†

tea bag slogan

It is 9 years since I started running Рby that I mean it was in 2009 that I started running regularly and called it my hobby Рin May of that year I ran my first race. In the ensuing 9 years my relationship with running has been a good one Рand through running, I have found great friendships both in real life and online. Over the years,  me and my running pastime have had our ups and downs but largely my love of everything to do with running has been an enduring one.

Throughout this time – running for me has been first and foremost a social activity with an exercise bonus. I do enter races – but usually with a level of ambivalence and a love/hate relationship with the training regime. I enjoy having a goal to focus on or a challenge to complete and have done a few run streaks.

Following a few years of running 10ks and half marathons – last year I trained for and completed a marathon and found the experience of training for the distance and the race itself quite a watershed in how I felt about running.

Devon sunset picture
Devon sunset

During the months leading up to the race, I realised that running could no longer be mainly a social thing – 26.2 miles is a long way for anyone to run and for someone of average fitness and the wrong side of 50, I knew I had to take it seriously and respect the distance.

I had to selfishly focus on my training schedule and sideline the running I enjoyed the most – so I put my social runs on the back burner or when I could I weaved them into my training schedule.

While this was a bit of a blow,  as the weeks passed I did start to appreciate the feeling of gaining in strength and confidence as I followed a progressive training plan and listened to my coach. Over time I saw that I could run distances of 15, 17, 19, 20 miles and feel OK the next day. I started to see it as fairly normal to train 4 or 5 days a week Рand to rattle off a 9 mile session with some speed work ( YUK ) or a hill rep sesh.  I loved how when I went to a Body pump class or Pilates I felt a strength and confidence in my body I had not experienced before.

While adhering to my training schedule was mostly motivated by fear of failure – as the weeks passed it felt good to feel strong. This was a first for me – up till then –¬† I would describe myself as a reluctant sportsperson, and one lacking in any competitive edge. In May of last year –¬† marathon day – I am pleased to report I had a largely storybook ending – completing the 26.2 mile distance in a decent time of 4 hrs 40 minutes and joining the club of marathon runners.

marathon tee shirt
in my finishers tee shirt

After the months of marathon training – it was lovely to return to running without a purpose and to be back running with friends and without goals.

Freedom to run or freedom to not run – how joyous !

Post marathon – I got back into my regular weekend run routine – but had no desire to enter any races, despite the voices saying – run a half marathon after a marathon and you will get a PB – but the thought of having to push myself to run at pace just held no appeal.

And so it continued – the longer I was from the marathon the less inclined I was to set any goals, and my mileage dropped.

I think there are runners who on completing one challenge immediately look for the next one – whether that be to improve on a time or increase the distance – but not me. Others find the time post marathon to be a tough one, feeling a bit directionless and struggle with motivation and this has been my experience. Not only have I have lost the motivation sometimes to go out for a run but I have no inclination to put myself through any racing challenge or test.

Trying to shake this off, earlier this year I entered the Edinburgh half marathon thinking it would give me the incentive needed to reignite running love – only to bail out the week before.

So a bit late in the day, I am declaring 2018 the year of not racing – and perhaps acknowledging that I am going through something of a 9-year itch with my running relationship.

I do run – just not very far and not nearly as often.

Then about a month ago when on holiday I was out for a  hot, slow run on a stony path and twisted my ankle, spraining it badly enough to mean that running was off the menu for a full 2 weeks.

Well of course when I was not able to run due to injury –¬† I felt bereft and missed my dear old friend. I¬† wondered what I would do if I could no longer run, and of course, there seemed to be runners everywhere and I had a massive dose of runner’s envy and FOMO all rolled into one.

It seems that absence makes the heart grow fonder – even where running is concerned.

Have you experienced a loss of running motivation – and any tips for getting through it ?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Train dreaming and place name poetry

 

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For the past 6 months or so I have been working in London and commuting weekly between my home city Edinburgh and London. Travelling for around 4 and a half hours each way on the same route – gives plenty time for train window dreaming and watching.

Maybe because I spent my¬†early years on a farm – I notice the crops and farming circle of life more than what might be happening through glimpses of windows or back gardens. My ‘seen from a train window’ novel –¬† would be short on drama and deeply lacking in Girl on a Train tension.

My Oct to June photo feed is packed with seasonal variations on a theme of east coast skies, fields, sea, distant cooling towers, tiny houses, trees jumping into focus, blurry videos and the odd sunrise and sunset. Watching how the colour of ploughed fields changes – from the reddy brown earth of Dunbar to almost black of the Fens.

There are familiar punctuations that mark the journey passing; southbound Рout to sea on the East Lothian coast, approaching the Scotland РEngland border at Berwick, counting the bridges over the Tyne, the light at York station, and then non stop from York as London draws nearer Рthe big  flatlands of the south.

And the poetry of place names

Balderton Barnby, Norwell Cromwell, Temple Hirst, Chapel Haddesey, Appelton Roebuck

Rattling on…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

London life – rekindling a love of reading

It’s a sad admission but I think that¬†come the end of this month I may have read more books in January 2018 than I did in the whole of 2017.

My rediscovery of books has undoubtedly been helped by me having a 4 and half hour commute twice weekly between Edinburgh and London, not to mention a couple of nights in hotels where I am that lone diner trying to perfect the pose of nonchalant reader and eater ( whilst really not reading anything but earwigging on the conversations around me).

Late to the party I was given a Kindle for Christmas, and although I love proper books and everything¬†about them – the paper, the cover, the typography, the smell, the craft, the mystery- my new electronic library has got me ticking off an oft-stated¬†but rarely achieved new year’s resolution to read more, and managing it with aplomb and joy over endurance and forbearance.

Like a child in a sweet shop, I am dangerously addicted to the ‘1- click’ ordering and immediacy of Kindle downloads.

And alongside my newfound love of digital over analogue books,  I am slowly mastering the art of vertical reading in close proximity to many others Рreading while commuting on the London Underground.

Here the Kindle comes into its own- as even while standing and swaying, I can hold it in one hand and turn pages with the gentlest inflection of my thumb. Rattling through pages as the Central line rattles through London.

I feel so modern

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I am not a fast reader but so far my 2018 reading list has included: Ann Cleeves РThe Seagull ( crime drama featuring detective Vera Stanhope), Catherine Gray РThe unexpected Joy of being sober ( true life account of reformed drinker Рuplifting & enjoyable read from the self-help genre), Bernard MacLaverty РMidwinter Break, (poignant and beautifully observed tale of a long marriage). 

Now switching between Dr Rangan Chattergee – the 4 Pillar Plan ( prescription for balance and health and importance of relaxation ) and Tina Brown’s the Vanity Fair Diaries ( enjoyable page-turner telling the story of her time as editor of Vanity Fair )¬†

 

December – Ho Ho Ho and the comfort of traditions

So here we are again – another year is coming to an end and my all time favourite month is here. I say favourite but it is a bit of a love/hate¬†thing. Mostly I love December – it’s my birthday month and I can deal with winter even if the older I get, the more I find the short days a tough gig and increasingly look to December sparkly excess to¬†carry me across to a new year and longer days.

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There is something about approaching a year end¬†that makes you even more aware of your unfulfilled life ‘to do’ list and take a reflective view of the story so far. Then for me anyhow, I just end up carrying forward unticked life goals into another year !

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Back when my girls were younger – December heralded a kind of rabbit in the headlights¬†– let’s just get through this month kind of vibe. In between badly crafting Nativity costumes, baking for the Christmas¬†fayre and watching the end of year dance shows, I poured flame on the December fire by creating extra, arguably unnecessary, traditions of ‘our family¬†advent’ and Christmas morning baking.

Then as my children became young adults – I switched my December madness to a different focus so for the past few years, I have opted to¬†run every day in December – following a Scottish based challenge –¬† the Marcothon – where you run a minimum of 3 miles every day in December.

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And just in case running every day was a bit too easy Рthe first time I did this, I decided to write about running every day in an aptly named blog Decemberism and found that writing about running every day was almost as hard as running.

Time passes and I am more of an established runner now Рbut alas not an established writer. It is tough to commit to running every day for sure Рbut I find it a lot harder to write daily, or even to just  get into a writing habit.

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So this year I am going to make a big fat effort to write more, and if I can I will run each day in December even if it’s just a run around the block on some days. I will keep to this daft December habit not least because, after 6 years of doing this, it has become a December ritual and maybe like many of us I find comfort in the salve of habits that over time become traditions.

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