25 January 2013

Thinking of making marmalade this weekend?


It's worth it

It’s worth it

I am triumphant after making nine jars of gorgeous, tangy, tawny marmalade which has set – yes! it did – to the point at which you can hold the jar upside down and it stays put, and yet melts to a spreadable deliciousness when applied to toast. The last time I tried, I was following a very complicated recipe and all it produced was a characterless, over-sweet slop. So this recipe is brilliant and I want to share it with anyone thinking about making marmalade while the Seville oranges are in season.

We have Riverford, the organic farm people, to thank. I got the oranges and lemons from them with accompanying recipe in my weekly box. But some markets and grocers as well as a few supermarkets (Sainsbury’s and Waitrose on a quick search) are selling Seville oranges. I was surprised to see that they are like big satsumas with a loose skin and uneven colour. Maybe I wasn’t even using the right orange last time.

One warning – this takes time. Don’t think you can do it in an afternoon and then go out in the evening. I did and was rescued by the girl, who took over at the point when you add the sugar and boil. And test for wrinkling and, if it hasn’t reached setting point, boil again. The girl reckons she had to do that about seven times before the marmalade wrinkled.

Before you start…

Before you start you need a piece of cotton muslin big enough to sit in a large bowl and hang over the sides, and string to tie it with; about nine jam jars (you can always empty a coffee jar or similar if you don’t have enough). Easiest is if you use the original lids, but if not you can use greaseproof paper to make the discs that sit directly on the marmalade, and clingfilm sealed with an elastic band over the top of the jar.


  • 1.5kg Seville oranges
  • 2 lemons
  • 2.5 litres cold water
  • approx 2kg granulated sugar (we used golden granulated, and more than 2kg)

 Basically there are six main tasks and I am putting VERY approximate times by them:

  1. Peeling and slicing the peel: 1 hour
  2. Putting everything into pan and bringing to boil: 1 hour
  3. Leave to simmer for 2 hours
  4. Adding sugar and bringing to boil: ¾ hour
  5. Boiling and testing until it wrinkles: 1½ hours
  6. Leaving then putting in jars: ½ hour

So approximate total = 6¾ hours.

Do use the original recipe on the Riverford website: all I’m doing here is adding in my experience of using it.

  1. Peel oranges and lemons, leaving as much pith behind as possible. Slice peel into thin strips and put into a really big pan.
  2. Line a large bowl with muslin. Cut the fruit in half and squeeze juice into bowl with your hands. Put the squeezed fruit including pips into the muslin, pull the corners and sides together to make a bag and lift above the bowl. Squeeze out remaining juice and then tie muslin with string to hold the pith etc inside. Put muslin and juice into the pan. Add 2.5 litres of cold water. Bring to the boil (this took half an hour) then reduce to a simmer.
  3. Leave to simmer for two hours, until the peel is tender, filling the house with citrus aroma. This is a good moment to put a few saucers in the fridge for testing the marmalade later, and sterilise the jars. Just putting them through the dishwasher must be the easiest but ours was broken so I put them on a baking tray in a cold oven and heated it to 140°C for 10-15 minutes. They stayed in there till needed. If you are not sure about putting the lids in the oven, sterilise them at the end: put the hot marmalade in the jars, screw down the lids and turn them upside down for five minutes.
  4. Pull out the muslin bag, put it in a big sieve and use a spoon to press the juice back into the pan. You can discard the bag. Now the amount of liquid you have in the pan needs to be measured in order to calculate the right amount of sugar. The easiest way is to pour all the contents of the pan into a big bowl and then use a measuring jug to put it back (peel and all) into the pan. Add 450g sugar for every 500ml liquid. Gently heat for 15 mins until the sugar has dissolved. Turn up the heat and bring to boil.
  5. Boil rapidly for 15 mins and then test to see if it has reached setting point: fetch one of the cold saucers from the fridge and put a teaspoon of marmalade on it. Gently push with the back of the spoon. If it starts to wrinkle, setting point has been reached. If not, keep boiling and re-test every ten minutes. The girl just washed the saucer and put it back in the fridge, she had to do it so many times. Seasoned marmalade makers may just do the initial boil for a longer time – any advice here? As soon as you reach setting point, TURN OFF THE HEAT. A friend warns ruefully that if you get bored, wander off and miss the moment, it changes texture and spoils.
  6. Skim any scum off the surface and leave to stand for 15 mins. Stir gently and then spoon into the warm jars. Put on the lids and turn upside down for five minutes or put discs of greaseproof paper directly on the marmalade and seal with clingfilm (or cellophane) and elastic bands. Leave somewhere cool overnight.

 Don’t be put off by the palava. The result is a rich, tawny orange marmalade so good it’s addictive. The taste is satisfyingly bitter and tangy beyond anything mass produced, with extra tang when you bite on the peel. And there is an additional surprise. It has a clear, jewell-like shine like glass. Do it – because it’s worth it.

Shiny homemade marmalade

21 January 2013

Local government participation alive in Lewisham

I actually went to my local ‘assembly’ at the weekend – the Rushey Green Assembly which covers Catford town centre and the main road up to Lewisham hospital. I didn’t expect much. My experience of participation in local government over the years has left me – well, not cynical, just low in expectation. Communities have taken quite a battering over the years as services and economies get more and more centralised, and planning and traffic management erode the level of human contact. Local political parties can be tribal and obscure. Town halls can feel impersonal. There are lots of wonderful residents, representatives and employees doing great things but it can be difficult to, you know, connect, sometimes.

Which made the assembly meeting all the more satisfying. There were, from memory, 40 or so there including a sprinkling of younger people. Councillor Peggy Fitzsimmons chaired the meeting with courtesy and patience which encouraged people to speak. The agenda was varied, from putting up a board celebrating Catford’s heritage to progress on the Catford Plan which will deliver major regeneration. Presentations from council officers were clear and logical. The interests of the group made sense – finding a venue for a community hub, more trees and public toilets, reducing pavement cycling. The assembly’s two year plan shows that most of its modest budget goes towards youth activity and engagement while provision for older people is also high on the agenda. While many in the room had long years of experience working with and in the council, there were others like myself who had just come along for interest. It felt inclusive and transparent and presented opportunities for further involvement without pressure.

So well done Lewisham Council and the people of Rushey Green for making this assembly work. I am really glad I made the effort. And don’t forget the demo to save Lewisham hospital’s A&E next Saturday!

15 January 2013

Children leaving the nest

Untangling the girl’s tights from a basket of washing disgorged from the machine, I reflect on how much she fills the interstices of our lives like a vine bearing blossom and fruit on the frame of the hours, days, months and years. I am going to miss her terribly when she leaves home. The keen appreciation and loss is premature given that she still has over two years to go at school. What my heart is trying to articulate to my head is that I am missing the boy, now 19. He returned yesterday to Delhi after three weeks at home. Won’t see him till June.

 I use his mug for my coffee and wonder what’s going on. I remember listening to tearful mothers when our ten-year-olds went on their first school trip and thinking, “Result! Now I can do x, y and z,” stuff for which there is usually no time. My parents were uncommunicative in this area. They used to be quite blithe about us going away. Independent, stiff upper-lipped, they sniffed at what they saw as ‘sentimentality’. I don’t judge sentiment so harshly but I know I have inherited a self-sufficiency that can seem cold.

 It is not as though living with the boy is a piece of cake. To say it was stressful would not be to exaggerate. When he is around, young people congregate in flocks, eating, chatting, smoking, listening to music. Actually they are incredibly polite, clean and well-behaved but inevitably their age, and taste in music and conversation, dictate that theirs is an exclusive social group. We parents sit in a different room and wonder what they are up to. Which just fuels the anxiety of our hopelessly suspicious minds. What are they planning? How much are they drinking? What sort of influence are they on each other? Why are they not each alone in their rooms reading Sartre?

 So, stressful yes, and his father and sister are even more irritated by his love of argument and need to have the last word than I. But he is also gorgeous, on the cusp of independence, with all the world ahead of him, and he has that smile, that look of affection for those he leaves behind mixed with anticipation at the things to come. Like Frodo as he takes one last look back before leaving on the ship for the far lands. Well maybe that is a fond mother’s over-imagining… but he is already half turned away, listening to a different music.

 And that’s the pain, the tear in the eye. Knowing your young person is ready and has to go. As well as sadness and resignation there is great pride in the boy and hope for his future. And gratitude for all of it, the rough and the smooth. And the expectation of many more returns and farewells. But none perhaps like this one.

19 December 2012

What’s your favourite cooking disaster story?

Last night two dear friends came to dinner. They are enjoying a precious week away from full time care of senile relative. I must cook something delicious I said to myself. They like traditional food – an opportunity to cook something really meaty (look away now vegetarians). Ah, a chance to cook a suet pudding! I love steak and kidney pudding but ours not really being a beef eating household – and never offal – I don’t get the chance. I’d been wondering what it would be like with lamb… should work the same way so why have I never eaten one? A quick google turned up a welsh lamb site with what looked like a winning recipe: lamb and rosemary pudding with a twist. The wise among you will already be thinking, ‘Don’t cook something with a twist!’ I cooked it.

Don’t try and listen to your teenage daughter explain the script of Vampire Diaries at the same time 

Lesson number one: always assume a new recipe will take an hour longer than you think. And don’t try to decorate the Christmas tree and listen to your teenage daughter explain the script of the Vampire Diaries at the same time. So it was that when the door bell rang I was still pleating the greaseproof paper and foil lid. Well, no problem, we usually chat over a glass of wine for two hours. It will be fine. The time indeed passes pleasantly: particularly entertaining is the story of how our friends were outwitted by a persistant stray cat; pure cartoon narrative.

Finally we sit down and I bring the pudding to the table. Looks good – it has swelled satisfyingly. I put the knife in. Hmm, shouldn’t the crust be more cooked than that? We test the meat. It’s done, though not melting as I wanted. But the surprise – a whole apple in the middle – is as hard and shiny as the day it was picked. I pull it out and we all look at it. Lesson number two: do not try a new recipe on guests because things like this often happen. At least they do to me. I am still haunted by memories of the time I decided to use cannellini beans in a Nigel Slater ham casserole recipe because I’d run out of butter beans. We waited (another occasion on which I wanted to impress) and waited for that dish to cook. In fact I was going to call this blog the ‘Diary of a Failure’; dollop of irony mixed with homespun truths about failure being the stepping stone to success – what’s not to like?

Actually the meat and gravy were still delicious, the suet crust was ok, so we did get to eat in the end and I fully intend to try this recipe again – without the apple. So I have two questions for you – has anyone been able to make this recipe work? And – what is your favourite cooking disaster story? I’d love to hear!

17 December 2012

Yo community choirs!

It was my privilege to be present this weekend at a wonderful evening of festive music, the ‘Christmas Cracker’ of the East Sussex Community Choir and Mid Sussex Sinfonia. A genuine cracker surprise for me as I only expected one treat, to catch up with my old friend Robin.

Lewes town hall was full and choir and orchestra resplendent in black tie. They worked their way through part one of the Messiah with panache, and the soloists, all students at East Sussex Academy of Music, were a delight. We were invited to singalong with the Hallelujah chorus which I admit to finding challenging: each time I got the hang of singing ‘hallelujah’, the choir would switch to ‘forever and ever’ and it just threw me. I watched their lips till I was dizzy so rather petered out on that one, but singing carols in the second half, accompanied by an orchestra, was thrilling.

And seeing the hundred-strong choir deliver complex harmonies and precise timing to the baton of Nick Houghton was a revelation. Anyone can join the choir, there is no audition and you don’t need to read music. Some members say they would never have dared to join a choir otherwise and that performing to this standard is a dream come true. Nick, to whom dear reader my friend is married, is truly the Gareth Malone of East Sussex and it is awesome (to use a WordPress word) to think that this is repeated in many places across the country. Yo community choirs!

14 December 2012

Turkey politics


Little did I think, when I proposed to Rocket Man that we get the turkey from Aldi this year, that I would be entering such dangerous territory as to disturb the harmony of our long-distance relationship, nay, as to rock the very foundations of marriage itself. I did think it would be prudent, given the state of our finances, to halve our expenditure on turkey by taking up the excellent offer of the supermarket chain. “They’re offering free range bronze birds at £27.99 and ‘ultimate pure breed roly poly hen turkeys’ from Norfolk for £35.99”, I explain. Surely that will tick the boxes and more, given that we don’t even know what deliciousness is implied by roly poly hen.

Silence ensues from the other end of the phone. “It says they roam free through beautiful British woodlands and flower pastures and everything” I say breathlessly, managing to stop before I get to the bit about how gamekeepers protect their welfare and quality of life as I don’t want to over-egg (boom-boom) the picture. A long pause. Finally he reminds me that the reason we go to Drings (an excellent independent butchers in Greenwich) is that they avoid a whole range of bad practices, not just battery farming. He doesn’t need to remind me why we converted to Drings: the meat there was a revelation after a series of watery, tasteless supermarket buys. I can tell this is non-negotiable. I mentally write off another day of freedom: each time I type my credit card number for another ‘but we always do this at Christmas’ purchase I know the day when I have to find a job gets closer… February, probably. The turkey is the centre piece of our Christmas, apparently, and not the thing on which to compromise. And this, I reflect, is a fable of our times, the whole capitalist trick of making everyone conform to the work – earn – spend ethic… but as I wonder whether it is of our times or whether it has always been like this, the scale of the analogy grows too vast and topples… I’ll just get on the phone to Drings then.

Why did they let the turkey join the band?
Because he had the drumsticks

Why did the police arrest the turkey?
They suspected it of fowl play

Why did the turkey cross the road?
It was the chicken’s day off.

Worst joke in the girl’s advent calendar so far: what do you get if you cross a snowman and a shark? Frost bite.

And my favourite cracker joke: what do you get if you sit under a cow? A pat on the head.

11 December 2012

Two weeks to Christmas

Brrr! Just returned from couriering Rocket Man’s kurta pyjama and a bag of instant coffee to a colleague of his who’s about to travel to Delhi. Which is where Rocket Man is based till Christmas. Our son is there too, getting gap year work experience, so it has been good to hear how supportive he has been since his grandmother’s death and that his dad is seeing him in a new light, not just the over-grown child glued to his computer with a special talent for irritation. As every stay-at-home mum knows, couriering and taxiing, along with cooking and washing, quickly come to define and delineate our days. I can now stand alongside my sisters and say: Do not tell us ‘You’ve got time because you are at home all day’. Time, my friend, is sucked up like debris into a hoover. Time drops off the bottom like the road on a satnav. Time disappears from the plate like a roast dinner.

the advent calendars were a bit of a challenge…

I am as shocked as anyone to realise it is only two weeks to Christmas. Only a fortnight ago I was happily making advent calendars (well sticking pictures on Malteser ones actually) and reorganising the cache of photos under the bed. Actually the advent calendars were a bit of a challenge. The girl has to take a cut throat blade to hers every morning. By the time I’d got to the boy’s I cut out each picture to fit the perforated squares; I do harbour doubts about the value of this, though the boy was touched if puzzled to receive a squashed £2 advent calendar with a sub-Blue Peter cut-and-paste job delivered at great expense to his door. A surprise in every way.

But I digress. Back to the brrr! It’s freezing cold indoors. Energy saving sites recommend turning off radiators rather than leaving them on low, so I am trying to stick to the discipline of the ‘off in the day’ regime we had before. I know the solution – get up and do the housework. It’s amazing how quickly a bit of ironing or lugging the hoover up and down stairs can warm you up. But often I sit, resisting the reality, till my hands are numb. How lazy is that. Or devoted to reading, writing and dodgy artwork depending on how you look at it.

To round robin or not?

Major house cleaning awaits, not to mention the usual Christmas preparations. And OMG the cards. Good thing Rocket Man is not here to scold. “Why can’t you just write their name and your name, why do you have to write notes?” he says every year. “Because I think of each person as I write the card”, I say, “even if it’s a scribbled ‘Shame we didn’t meet this year, have a brilliant Christmas’.” Which takes us directly to the ‘round robin or not to round robin?’ question. In theory it makes sense to write down your news once and then share it with everyone, but in practice the rhetorical nature of the communication (not expecting interaction) can make it sound weirdly flat or opaque. The author has to balance the year’s disasters with more positive news: ‘Ben dropped out of university but Becky’s doing everso well in her recorder group’ or ‘Andrew left me for that *****  but the children and I have had some really good times watching XFactor together’. Too much gory detail and you will scare your friends. Too much success and they will hate you. Is it possible not to sound smug when listing the achievements of one’s family or, on the contrary, sounding jaded if you try not to? As in, ‘Jenny did get in to Ye Olde Superselective School and Steve’s been promoted but really, the year has been characterised by my mother’s arthritis’ or ‘It has been a bore moving house: dry rot in the gables and condensation in the indoor swimming pool’. To be fair, I have a cousin who makes an honest attempt to impart news without gilding or downplaying significance. I enjoy her insights and feel compassion and admiration for her family’s ups and downs. I just can’t, despite scolding, do it myself.

6 December 2012

Tree spotting and pedantic teenagers

I want to know about trees. The ones I pass every day, what are their names? The nomenclature of nature is one of those things you think you ought to know about but life is short and the desire gets buried along with a thousand others like a pile of autumn leaves. I know oak, horse chestnut, willow… maybe beech, but what about the threatened ash, or elm? Not re-ea-ly sure… I search the bookshelves for the old Guide to Trees. Ah, there it is. A note in the flyleaf takes me back to my student years and a friend I loved. Goodness me. Shut the book and get on. The day has dawned golden over a sparkling frost. Must get out before it all melts. I make a thermos of coffee and wrap two – no three – biscuits in foil. Like going on a picnic.

The girl delays me with a level of pedantry hitherto concealed. She is applying to the sixth form of another school in order to have a choice next summer. The form needs to be interpreted: ‘No but should I put all the exams I am taking or just the GCSEs? What does it mean by GCSE level?’ I mildly make suggestions which are treated with scorn. ‘No Mum they are trying to get at something or they wouldn’t have put it like that and I can’t fill it in’. I escape by directing her to our lovely teacher-neighbour and march off to GreenwichPark.

After the bustle of Lewisham market, emerging on to Blackheath is strangely peaceful like entering a submerged world of distant and distorted noise. Frosted leaves crunch underfoot. Pigeons pecking at the ground are puffed up against the cold like little turkeys. Walking into the park, the trees on the main avenue are bare of leaves but there are plenty on the ground. One type of leaf stands out: still golden-green, it looks like a hand with five long fingers or ‘lobes’. The Guide, after some fumbling with cold hands, suggests it belongs to the Oriental Plane. I look up for a tree with balls hanging from the twigs like a London Plane. Ah, there it is. Yes, lots of furry balls, which the Guide calls fruiting catkin, and still quite a few leaves on the branches. A vast tree which has been allowed to grow without the pollarding so common with planes so its crown is shaped like a mushroom. I love to stand inside and look out through the knobbled fretwork of catkin and twig.

Leaf like hand

Leaf like hand

 Walking further into the park, a squeaking sound makes me look up. A stunning green parakeet sits on a branch with long tail and curved beak. And there’s her mate. The tree they occupy is gnarled and knotted like an Arthur Rackam illustration. The long, now copper leaves with spiky edge or ‘tooth’ tell me it’s a Sweet Chestnut – a tree Greenwich Park is famous for. The oldest ones were planted for Charles II in the 1660s. Crows and squirrels are also busy overhead and in a moment of seasonal complicity, a robin poses on a lone pole against a backdrop of red berries. I can only see conker husks beneath the avenue of horse chestnuts, the leaves have gone, but the book confirms that the abundance of short brown leaves are beech. And finally, walking towards a magnificent giant of a tree silhouetted against a sky of luminous cirrus cloud, the fallen leaves tell me it is an oak – not your usual English but a Turkey oak. The lack of acorns puzzles until I realise that the clusters of hairy little goblets, like coir matting, are the cups. The low sun dazzles as I stride back over the heath and home to my pedantic teenager.

Oak with cirrus cloud

5 December 2012

Making bread in Notting Hill

Spent a wonderful morning at Recipease, Jamie Oliver‘s cookery school in Notting Hill. I’d finally signed up to a bread making class after being given a gift voucher many months ago. I fear if I had still been working I would never have got round to it.

Four of us faced the teacher across the counter, a friendly, accomplished young woman who showed us how to mix the flour, salt, sugar, yeast and water by hand. It reminded me of my mother-in-law making dough for rotis and paranthas. We made loaves, rolls, stuffed bread and focaccia. I realised many things:

  • bread making is about practice but also attitude
  • if your dough is sticky you don’t add more flour; you work it in olive oil
  • you can’t conflate all bread making wisdom into one – there are many different recipes, dough textures and levels of stickiness
  • you can wrap a load of meat, cheese, vegetables and herbs in ordinary dough and turn it into a ‘filled loaf’
  • you don’t have to knead for ages, just five minutes or so, until springy to touch
  • it doesn’t need to be cooked in a tin or pot – the dough can simply be put on a piece of greaseproof paper on a baking tin
  • dough will rise in the fridge overnight; it just takes longer in the cold.

So yeah, really good fun. The kitchen is set in the centre of the Jamie Oliver café and shop, an informal mixture of high-tech design and domestic clutter with background chatter, music and divine aromas. And all around, iconic London life in the shape of red double-decker buses, plane trees and high street bustle can be seen through the floor to ceiling windows. We got to eat bacon rolls made with our own bread – no, it was actually delicious! – while the final batch baked. Noone wanted to go home at the end.

1 December 2012


How to protect the privacy of people from unreasonable media attention was one of the main challenges for Lord Justice Leveson in the inquiry set up by David Cameron last year. Whether ordinary people whose lives had been overtaken by tragedy, like the Dowler and McCann families, or celebrities like Hugh Grant and JK Rowling, numerous victims gave evidence of painful and traumatic intrusion. Leveson’s proposals seem to address this problem as long as the independent press regulator is underpinned by legislation. The legislation also enshrines the freedom of the press.

 But the other main challenge was how to protect government from undue influence by press proprieters. If politicians believe they have to woo and allow their policies to be overly influenced by editors and owners, in order to gain and keep power, clearly democracy suffers. No party leader wants a headline on election day like the one the Sun gave Labour leader Neil Kinnock in 1992: “If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights”. Ouch. The measures to protect privacy will reduce the fear individuals have of the media to unreasonably damage their reputations. But how do Leveson’s proposals reduce the kind of influence News International has had on public life? As Nick Davies said yesterday, “…the real problem, of course, is in the power of the beast. This debate is not about to be settled with facts and reasoned argument. It will be conducted under the same old rules – of falsehood, distortion and bullying. Will any government stand up to it? That’s where the real nightmare may lie.” The NUJ has welcomed Leveson’s support for a conscience clause for journalists which gives them the contractual right to follow the code of conduct. They also need protection from being bullied by editors to “get the story at all costs”. So now we see the right wing media campaigning against the legislation which is needed to curb their excesses, supported by the Prime Minister. Should we read this as the establishment sticking together or expedience on the part of Cameron?