Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Marmalade fest celebrates quintessential British breakfast treat

The 2024 competition featured 17 categories, including entries from a Taiwanese orphanage in the children's section and a US women's correctional facility in the newly introduced prison's class

Published: Apr 30, 2024 04:52:50 PM IST
Updated: Apr 30, 2024 04:58:13 PM IST

Marmalade fest celebrates quintessential British breakfast treat A screenshot taken from an AFP TV video, shows people browsing jars of marmalade entered into the annual Dalemain world marmalade awards, in Penrith. Photography Justine GERARDY / AFP©

The Japanese ambassador raved about the daffodils and the glorious spring sunshine. The Australian envoy joked about beating the "Poms" at their own game. A life-sized Paddington waved and clapped.

On the steps of a centuries-old country house in northwest England, one of the nation's most eccentric cultural events—the Dalemain World Marmalade Awards—was in full swing.

Inside, in an oak-panelled room lined with portraits of family ancestors, winning jars of the quintessentially British fruit preserve covered every surface.

"Excellent marmalade, just cloudy," read one judge's report card. "Good colour and set," said another. "Jar should be filled to the top," said a third.

Every January and February, when bitter Seville oranges from Spain are available for a few short weeks, marmalade makers shut themselves away in their kitchens to chop, pulp and boil.

Many of those homemade marmalades—along with other non-Seville marmalades from as far afield as Hawaii, Japan, Taiwan and Australia—wind their way to Dalemain, which this year received just under 3,000 pots of the sweet, sticky condiment.

The 2024 competition featured 17 categories, including entries from a Taiwanese orphanage in the children's section and a US women's correctional facility in the newly introduced prison's class.

We got silver!

Made by boiling together the juice and peel of citrus fruits, sugar and water, marmalade as we know it now was pioneered commercially in the late 18th century by the Keiller family of Dundee in Scotland.   

Spread generously on buttered toast, it is traditionally a staple of British breakfast tables as well the favoured sandwich filling of children's character Paddington, a small bear from "deepest, darkest Peru".

"We got a silver, which we're delighted about!" said James Stoddart, a prison rehabilitation worker in northeast England, spotting his jail's entry adorned with a silver star.

Two prisoners had lobbied to take part, inspired by one of their daughters who loved Paddington, he said, even though neither of them had a clue how to make marmalade.

"You're not allowed glass inside prisons so we had to really fight to get it in and get it done," he said, adding that 12 jars were eventually produced, including one that was sent to the little girl.

Founded by Dalemain chatelaine Jane Hasell-McCosh, the awards are held annually at the family's historic house in the Lake District National Park and have raised more than £250,000 ($310,000) for charity.

From just 60 jars from the local area in 2005, there are now spin-off events also taking place in Japan and Australia.

Also read: Meet Dimitri Bordon, your chocolate croissant world champion

Queen and Paddington

Atsuko Hayashi, owner of The English Kitchen in Tokyo, said the pastime had changed her life by helping her to "connect with people" globally.

For London-based Danish photographer Henrik Knudsen, marmalade making was "a very English thing" which he had happily adopted since living in the UK.

But he said getting it right was not an exact science and the results could be unpredictable.

The clarity could be wrong, the peel might be a bit tough, the texture could be too runny, he said. "That's the charm of it."

Marmalade received an unexpected boost during the 2022 celebrations for Queen Elizabeth II's Platinum Jubilee, when the late monarch took part in a televised comedy sketch with Paddington.

Also read: Japan's humble 'onigiri' rice balls get image upgrade

Broad church

The skit was a welcome reminder of marmalade's qualities at a time when homemade has never been more popular, said Caroline Hodge, winner of the dark and chunky category.

Mass-produced marmalade had "got sugary and that's not flavour", she said, explaining that she had reduced the sugar content of a recipe handed down to her by an aunt and added ginger, turmeric and all spice.

"It's very emotional because my aunt is no longer here and I'm a bit blown away," she said.

"It's not quite Wimbledon but it's definitely the Oscars," she added.

Entries for the 2024 competition included a host of unusual ingredients from chillies and seaweed to caviar and smoked pineapple.

Retiring head judge Dan Lepard said the awards were a "broad church" happy to embrace "all the citrus fruits in the world"—not just Seville oranges—as well as unusual flavourings.

For the overall 2024 winner, Stephen Snead, the honour comes with the added bonus of having his marmalade commercially produced for a year and sold in luxury London department store Fortnum & Mason.

The 52-year-old English accountant who won with two jars—orange and lime marmalade with red chillies and a lime marmalade with creme de cacao—said he was overwhelmed to be at Dalemain and see "just how far the marmalade family reaches across the world".

"It's just an absolute thrill," he said.