Sheilagh Matheson survives a marmalade lovefest deep in the Lake District.
I heard my pal Judy before I saw her at Dalemain Marmalade Festival. She squawked: “I got a bronze. It’s totally mad, but I got a bronze!” She waved the certificate around and I’m sure I’ll see it framed in her toilet sometime soon.
She was one of many excitable marmalade makers at the festival in Cumbria, an annual event that attracts entries from as far afield as Australia, the Czech Republic, and Japan.
This year’s publicity machine was in overdrive because it was mentioned on the BBC’s heavy duty news agenda-setting Today programme. That’s right, Syria, Ian Duncan Smith’s resignation and marmalade wars.
John Humphreys gravely repeated a Times story that the Scots and English were at loggerheads over where marmalade originated. 16 Scottish clans and eight clan chiefs had entered the competition – not surprising because there was a special category for them called Stirring the Clans. But they were allegedly claiming marmalade started North of Hadrian’s Wall. Whoever made up the story was definitely taking the pith (that’s the only pun, promise) because there was a six foot model of a Dundee Marmalade jar at Dalemain country house’s front door, which seems to me a massive gesture of appeasement.
Inside, thousands of jars of marmalade were laid out in three wood-panelled rooms. Oil paintings of ancestors gazed down on weird and wonderful concoctions, while hundreds of visitors and competitors milled around reading the judges’ comments.
When Jane Hasell-McCosh started the festival around 2007 to raise money for the local hospice, it was a small event. She asked the Women’s Institute to provide judges because the WI is “above reproach, known to be honest and has proper training in judging.” The event mushroomed, so more judges were appointed and they take it very seriously.
There are so many entrants and categories, from first timers to the military to campanologists, that the judges take two weeks over tasting and selecting the best. They must have stamina, because I sampled the equivalent of four tablespoonfuls in two hours and felt decidedly queasy.
Their comments were critical but kind; e.g. a particularly murky jar inspired “Interesting and unusual flavour. Not sure what it is.” It still scored 14 which was a Merit Award.
Descriptions on the jars were imaginative, the best being for California Jam Queen’s LGBT Marmalade – “Sweet, complex, and not surprisingly somewhat bitter.”
Judges gave the same advice repeatedly – fill jar to the top, use a clean jar, remove the old sticky labels, watch out for air bubbles, don’t use trade jars (like Maille mustard) and make sure the lid fits. Most importantly, beware leakage and cloudiness.
I always thought marmalade was mainly oranges, but it can be made of any citrus fruit plus whatever else you fancy. That leads to some disgusting, or maybe exciting, mixtures such as grapefruit and peanut (nice flavour, very odd texture), Seville orange and roasted quinoa (sadly quinoa spoiled flavour and texture) or orange and spruce syrup (interesting flavour).
The Festival attracts visitors from far and wide. Three Spaniards travelled from Seville to see what all the fuss was about. A couple from Dartmouth were inspired by Dalmain to run their own Marmalade March Festival after she won two gold awards in the past. This year she’d slipped to silver. Tut tut.
Entrants pretend it’s a big joke, but they’re very competitive. I know for a fact that Judy got a bronze award last year and desperately wanted silver this year, so she was putting a brave face on it.
As for the Marmalade Wars story, it was definitely nonsense, because some of the best compliments were given to the Scots. “Well Done MacDonalds – flavour at last” and “Robust, manly marmalade. Peel outrageously big.” And the Best in Show 2016 award went to one with Scottish whisky in it.