Winter is the season for citrus where oranges, lemons, and clementines glow like baubles on Rome’s countless ornamental trees. From along the grand Via XX Settembre to the urban Via del Porto Fluviale look up and into the trees, which are heavy with vivid fruit between December and May. Il Giardino delle Arance is the name given to Parco Savello on the Aventine hill, a favourite with travellers for the inspiring view back across the city and bursting with orange trees. These and almost all of Rome’s urban oranges are amare, or bitter oranges, which in English are known as seville oranges. These tasty specimens, so prized for orange marmalade, came from Andalusia to England and there is a wonderful library of legends about Spanish ships and shipwrecks near Dundee in Scotland in the 1700’s which led to the creation of this world-known marmalade.
But back to Rome. There are hundreds of streets lined with arance amare ripe for the picking. And once you’ve gathered fruit from these urban orchards – setting off the inner hunter/gatherer gene – you will want to pick more and preserve what has been harvested. The heavy bags hanging from your shoulders are filled with fruit that were absolutely free. What a wonderful city to be in!
Until last year I had never made marmalade. Every summer I make jam often with foraged fruit from Lubriano and cartons of just past peaches and plums from my fruttivendola. But jam making is a simple process requiring little skill and leaving ample margin for less sugar or a mix of fruits. Marmalade, which in English refers strictly to the citrus variety, is different from the Italian Marmellata that refers to the whole gamma of conserves and is a much more detailed and scientific procedure. Plus, not all citrus conserves are equal, the best versions being a translucent affair with beautiful strips of fine peel amongst a runny, sweet and bitter at the same time conserve, rather than an often opaque mush of fruit cooked with sugar. Marmalade is rather time consuming to make, but oh so satisfying when you smear it on a lovely slice of toasted bread. And beside that, it is one of the only things you can make with those bitter oranges.
The amazing thing about Rome’s urban oranges, and this has been tested by Frutta Urbana, is that oranges don’t absorb the city’s pollution. The fruit has an inbuilt natural defense system and chemical testing rates the fruit as organic. Of course they need a pretty good scrub. To find out more about Frutta Urbana and where to pick oranges around Rome click here. I picked mine in Via del Porto Fluviale (photo) near Via Ostiense using a child’s fishing net and in front of some of Rome’s best street art. Yes, I did get some strange looks, but I also bagged 20 odd bitter oranges.
This recipe is from Daphne Chanez.
Seville Orange Marmalade
about 20 bitter oranges
1 kg fine cane sugar (exact sugar quantity to be measured during preparation)
1 stick of vanilla
The whole process takes about 3 hours, less if you have another pair of hands or if you are not prone to distraction. Sharp knives are essential.
1. Wash the oranges well. If they are urban fruit this means giving them a good scrub and possibly throwing in a teaspoon or two of bicarbonate. Water will be like kids’ bath water.
2. Peel the oranges making sure not to grab too much of the white with each peel. Finely slice the peel – or cut it more roughly if you like a chunkier look.
3. Place the peel slices in a saucepan, cover with cold water and bring to the boil. Lower the flame and cook for about 30 mins. Drain liquid and set peels aside.
4. For the next stage – which is by far the most painstaking – a chopping board with a good groove to collect the juice is required. Cut the white part from the whole oranges as if you were preparing a fruit salad. Toss the skins. Cut the oranges in half and remove the pips, placing them in a small saucepan along with the juice as it is collected. The remaining flesh, which will be a bit worse for wear after having removed the pips, needs to be cut with a sharp knife into roughly 2 cm cubes. Remove any nasty tough pithy pits and collect flesh in a large bowl.
4. Once you have all the flesh cut you can add the boiled rind strips to the bowl. Measure the contents of the bowl, and this will give you a guide for the quantity of sugar. This recipe calls for 50% fruit (flesh and peel), 50% sugar, so if you have 1kg of fruit mix, you will need 1kg of sugar.
5. Place the saucepan of pips and juice on a medium flame and bring to the boil. Lower flame and cook for another 10 minutes. Cooking the pips and the juice allows the pectin – which is the all important setting agent for jams and jellies – to develop. After cooking you will have a thick browny orange syrupy liquid which needs to be pushed through a fine sieve or hung and then squeezed through muslin. Some marmalade recipes tell you to tie the pips in a muslin bag and let them cook with the mixture. I liked Daphne’s method because if you have a great amount of pectin you can conserve or freeze some for future jam making. Set drained syrup aside.
6. Over a moderately high flame, place the rind and flesh mixture in a good preserving saucepan and cook for 5 minutes, then lower the flame and cook for a further 20 mins. Make sure the mixture doesn’t catch.
7. Add the sugar, half a vanilla pod with a slip down the side and the pectin syrup and cook for a further 20 minutes over a low flame. Stir regularly and make sure the mixture doesn’t catch. The mixture should thicken but still have a runniness to it. The color should be a beautiful translucent orange. If the mixture seems too runny, keep cooking for another 5-10 minutes but stand by: I have first hand experience that jam and marmalade can overcook or burn easily in the final stages.
8. My mother’s setting test (she had to make it in here somewhere) is letting the marmalade drop from a wooden spoon onto a small plate to see how it has jelled. Once happy with the consistency, use a funnel and ladle the marmalade into sterilized jars with new lids. Close accurately and leave them upside down until they have cooled completely.
Alice Adams, cook, food writer and stylist, moved to Rome in 2005 to learn more about regional Italian culinary traditions; the stories behind the food in each part of Italy that give local food its legitimacy and cultural importance. Alice loves sharing the Roman food experience with visitors; piecing together seasonal produce, local agricultural traditions and historical reasons behind the food. She has a degree in Art History and her eyes are always open to Rome’s beauty as she walks the cobbled streets in search of the city’s best.
She writes about food, vintage hunting and old ways on her blog rusticaRETRO