Tea. Toast. Marmalade… my holy trinity.
I didn’t realise the importance of toast and marmalade until I left home for the first time to go to University. My family has always stayed in touch and found adventure at the same time: my father works in Scotland, Monday to Friday; my Mum has taught in Bolivia, Peru and Argentina in her retirement; and my sister makes a living out of organizing other people’s travels around the world. Marmalade has been the one constant in all my years of travel; absence makes the marmalade grow sweeter, and I never feel far from home without it.
There is a ritual associated with making our family marmalade. Mum gets in the oranges, Dad opens a good bottle of wine, and they pass the evening peeling away time and pith, cutting up the fruit and relaxing into the citrus smells as it boils away with more sugar than you’d like to think. We only have a limited supply of the golden, citrus-sweet preserve each year. We normally make about fifty jars, and there is always a slight panic in November when we only have ten jars left and wonder if there is still enough for Christmas.
I can justify tea, toast and marmalade any time of day: a quick snack; a luxurious breakfast; a late night treat. The tea is comforting, slipping down my throat to wash away the final crumbs, and I relish in the crunch of the toast, as my teeth sink into marmalade and butter. Oh the butter! I cut butter so wantonly that friends have often mistaken some Anchor butter for a piece of cheddar cheese on my toast. It sits there proud, like a gold bar your hips are going to pay for. For me it’s always been butter and bread, not bread and butter. Like jacket potatoes and freshly toasted crumpets, toast is essentially a vehicle for copious amounts of butter, and marmalade its willing accomplice.
My breakfast communion involves brewing the tea first, only making the toast once the milk has been added to the tea (teabag still in), so the tea is just the right temperature when the toast is ready. The butter must be slightly soft, but still hard enough to cut into thick pieces. I tip the marmalade jar slightly to one side, using my knife to fish out the pieces of rind along with the pulpy marmalade. As I take my first bite I feel the solid base of toast on my tongue, with the fresh citrus sweetness on the roof of my mouth and a buttery layer in between the two. The satisfying discovery of a piece of rind cuts through the sweetness, and sends a tang of bitterness round the edge of my tongue as I work the remaining seeds from the bread out of my teeth and wash the whole experience down with warm, dark tea.
I have to take a brief pause from writing— excuse me! I run down to the kitchen, I can almost feel the butter on my teeth and I justify the indulgence in more marmalade as purely for research purposes.
Marmalade is a typical English preserve which originates from the Portuguese marmelada, although the Scots are credited with coming up with the recipe in the 1700s when faced with an inconveniently large stock of Spanish oranges that had come into port. Although I think of it as English, marmalade has crossed more borders than I realise. Marmalade is not tied to one particular place or home for me, as I’ve eaten it in a flat in Leeds with no central heating, a rickety apartment in Northern Spain, and huddled next to a radiator looking over the Rocky Mountains in Canada. It tastes of all the places I’ve lived, and like an umbilical breakfast chord, it always takes me back to my mum. In each city I have had a jar of her marmalade with me, providing me with the one taste of stability I needed. The crunch of the toast and sweet release of the marmalade sounds better than Dorothy clicking her heels, and suddenly there was no place like which ever home I happened to be breakfasting in.
Over the years my mum and I have honed our technique for posting marmalade ever increasing distance as I have studied abroad in Spain and Canada. We had to contend with the marmalade’s viscosity, its propensity for leakage, and find a container that was lighter and less breakable than a jam jar. The first time mum sent marmalade to Leeds, she used a small butter container, wrapped with brown package tape, a sandwich bag, and then more tape. When I went to the post office to pick the package up, I was required to answer a few questions from the Post Master about this sticky package they had been holding on to. We’ve since tried yoghurt pots, plastic bags and containers, but have finally settled on a screw top Tupperware about the size of a tea mug, which fits all the criteria and still looks good on the kitchen table.
I secretly worry about what will happen after my mum dies. I imagine crying onto my dry toast, unable to compromise myself with a shop-bought brand. I have long chastised myself for not learning from her, so she agreed to teach me her secrets— and my first batch was delicious. Yet the idea of making my own marmalade was more frightening than not having any at all. My own jar of marmalade had the taste of my mother’s mortality; like finding out where her Last Will was—I just didn’t want to know until I needed to. I will only have to make my own batch of marmalade when my mum finally hangs up her wooden spoon and preserving pan for good; so until then I will happily breakfast on the tangy fruits of her labour and put the kettle on to boil once again.