You might be surprised to learn that marmalade is not an English invention, although we tend to think of it as a typically English breakfast treat. Marmalade goes back at least to the ancient Romans, who created a concoction out of quinces and honey that they called marmelo, from the Latin word for quince, which could be roughly translated as “honey fruit.” Quinces were too sour to be eaten without sweetening.
Quinces are a particularly good fruit for making a sweetened preserve. They’re high in pectin, which means that they will gel easily. The Romans simmered the mixture slowly for hours and then allowed it to cool. They didn’t know about pectin, but they knew they had a good thing going.
The Roman author Apicius wrote a cookbook in about the fifth century AD that mentions marmalade, so we know that marmalade goes back at least that far. The Persians were making it, too, by at least the sixth century AD. They also made it from quinces, and considered it the finest of all fruit desserts.
By the middle ages, the Portuguese were making marmalade and importing it all over Europe. It was not a marmalade that we would recognize, being more of a thick paste than a clear jelly. It was a popular item for gift-giving among the nobles, and was thought to be a good remedy for upset stomachs. It was considered more of a candy than a condiment, and would often be eaten at the end of a large feast, to help with the digestion.
King Henry VIII received a gift of marmalade from a Mr. Hull of Exeter in 1524. It came in a box, so we can assume that it was probably still the paste variety. We can probably also assume that King Henry enjoyed it, as he had a healthy appetite and may have needed the occasional digestive assistance. It had an additional benefit: marmalade, it seems, was rumored to have aphrodisiac properties.
It wasn’t until the 18th century that marmalade began to take the form in which we recognize it today. In 1797 a retired merchant named John Keiller encountered a Spanish ship in the harbor of Dundee, Scotland. The ship had been forced to make harbor due to a storm, and the captain offered Keiller a great deal on Seville oranges, which were not keeping as well in the hold as he had hoped. Keiller bought the entire shipment and took it home, only to be disappointed that the fruit was so sour.
Seville’s wife, an experienced confections cook, decided not to let them go to waste, and cooked up a batch of a bitter-sweet orange jam, using skins, pith, and all. The marmalade was a great hit in the Keiller’s local sweet shop, and by the mid-1800’s the family business, now in its third generation, was going strong. Keiller marmalade was being sold in England as well as Scotland by then, and was doing almost as well as it had in Dundee, despite a steadily increasing number of competitors. The Keillers even set up a small operation on the island of Guernsey, where they wouldn’t be required to pay duty on imported sugar.
In the British Isles, marmalade came to refer only to the preserve made from oranges or other citric fruits, but in many other countries the word still represented any type of jam or jelly. Under British influence, the European Union has limited the sale of “marmalades” specifically to preserves made from citrus fruits. As for Keiller’s Dundee Marmalade, it’s still on the market, although the product is no longer manufactured by the Keiller family.
Linda Ziedrich, The Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves: 200 Classic and Contemporary Recipes Showcasing the Fabulous Flavors of Fresh Fruits, Harvard Common Press; Alan Davidson, The Oxford Companion to Food, Oxford University Press; Dan Lepard, “The History of Marmalade,” Marmalade Awards; Sarah B. Hood, “Persian Marmalade History,” Toronto Tasting Notes; Elizabeth Smith, “Marmalade,” The New York Times; Karen Chapple, “Ye Olde English Marmalade — History and Recipe 1480 AD,” In Pursuit of Perfection; “Keiller’s: Sticky Success,” BBC website.