The history of marmalade

below: The recipe book of Elizabeth Rainbow, a manuscript from the 1680s in the collection of Dalemain House, showing a recipe for a Marmalade of Oranges.

If you could travel backwards from the pot of bitter jellied orange preserve that most of us think of as marmalade today to its origins you’d see so many different methods and ingredients that you’d be left wondering… how on earth it could be defined at all. Quinces, honey and spices, sometimes with fruit pieces in syrup and other times set so firm it formed a sort of paste. Thick dark mixtures and others glistening with clarity. Some overwhelmingly sweet, others with a strong bitterness and grainy texture. Yet all these ingredients and characteristics sit somewhere in the long history of marmalade.

Originally, so the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) tells us, it was “a preserve consisting of a sweet, solid, quince jelly [a little like the Spanish membrillo paste] but with the spices replaced by flavourings of rose water and musk or ambergris, and cut into squares for eating ” 1. The association of the quince, a dense yellow-skinned fruit similar in appearance to a pear, with the word marmalade is thought to stem from “post-classical Latin malomellum, [for] quince or sweet apple…[a] change of vowel in first syllable after classical Latin mālum.” 1

“This quince paste was nearly always imported into Britain in round wooden boxes, very much like a Turkish delight box, and frequently a design was printed on it from a mould,” says food historian Ivan Day who has researched in detail the history of marmalade and the fruit pastes related to it. “There was an English precursor called ‘chardequince’: basically a quince preserve, quite thick, flavoured with the spices like cinnamon, and you see many references to this in 15th century literature. Similar pastes were made with crab apple and pear – chardecrabe and chardepere. But during that time you started to get boxes of quince paste a quite regular imported from the Iberian Peninsula, mainly from Portugal.”

Though the quince has white flesh, once simmered for hours it takes on a reddish golden hue and when combined with honey the colour becomes even more intense and more suggestive of what we think of today as a marmalade colour. Sometimes apples would be used, their pectin adding to the firmness or set of the mixture, though the skins and peel of the quince are also pectin-rich.

Ivan Day tells us that these quince pastes were variously known as marmalades (from the Portuguese ‘marmelo’ – quince) 2 but when oranges were first used to make a preserve with the name is less clear. The fragrant but bitter rinds of oranges, cooked until soft and then steeped in syrup, were not simply enjoyed as sweetmeats, they were also thought by herbalists to “warme the stomack, digest, and breake winde”3 so it’s not too hard to imagine how a paste made from sweetened bitter oranges might serve as a confection with a soothing characteristic.

The candied flesh of oranges began to be used to make pastes as well in the 16th century, alongside the preserving of the peel as a sweetmeat. “The truth,” says Day, “is probably that alongside the boxes of quince paste exported from the Mediterranean – usually from Portugal but also from North Africa and Italy – we know that something called “suckets” were exported as well. Suckets were whole pieces of orange, lemon or citron peel exported in barrels, and got their name from the French word “succade” meant anything preserved in sugar. These preserved peels were very common and that’s why the British have many cake recipes from the early modern period containing these exotic peels.”

So during this time the name “marmalade” seems to become a generic description for fruit preserves. Day describes one rather extraordinarily fantastic orange confection – ‘To Preserve Oranges after the Portugal Fashion’ which consisted of fresh oranges hollowed out to remove the flesh while keeping the peel intact. Then the peel was boiled till soft and cooked in a sugar syrup until it candied. Next, the flesh and more peel was cooked with sugar into a very thick fruit paste boiled then stuffed back into the hollow in the whole candied peel.”

“And the way people could understand these fruit preserves,” says Day, “was by giving them the one name: marmalade. For example, you get prune, cherry and apricot marmalades preserved in the same way. So this generic name “marmalade” referred to fruit pastes. Some quince confections also had specific names: “cotoniack” (the English spelling) was used to describe a quince paste, or “quidoiac” which was a less thick marmalade, more like a jelly. So marmalade became generic but cotoniac – by the early 1600s became specific to quince. Even today in Europe, the term “marmalade” and its variations is still used as a generic term, while in Britain we’ve redefined it as referring solely to a citrus preserve.

The recipe book of Madam Eliza Cholmondeley, dated around 1677 and held at the Chester Record Office 4, has one of the earliest recipes (for a Marmelet of Oranges) that compares to the marmalade we know today. Written with an ink pen on rather beautiful paper, and carefully preserved by the Cheshire county archivists, it is somewhat thrilling to view the manuscript and feel connected with such an old recipe for a simple conserve of bitter oranges and sugar.

Eliza Cholmondeley’s recipe cuts all the pith and zest from the fruit in one piece, saves the juice, and then soaks the peel for three or four days, changing the water daily to – we presume – reduce the bitterness. Then it’s simmered until tender, cut finely, and cooked in the proportions of half a pint of cooked peel with half a pint of juice and a pound and a quarter of sugar. However the Cholmondeley recipe is clearly making a thick mixture with pieces, as she instructs that it should be boiled hard until “it comes clean from the bottom of the skillet” which is more in keeping with the fruit pastes of today.

Of course, this recipe and previous marmalades of quinces and apples were costly and unusual in their time. Historian Laura Mason explained to me that typically the recipes that were written down were the ones likely to be forgotten, rather than the everyday. So expensive confections like these were only found in wealthy households, and the recipes, methods and techniques would be passed between the great houses of Europe. Spanish pastry cooks were highly prized, and so it is possible that recipes such as these were influenced by cooks in the palaces of Spain, Portugal, Italy and France as well as England.

A later recipe from Mary Kettilby’s book “A Collection of Above Three Hundred Receipts in Cookery, Physick and Surgery” 5 published around 1714 includes an important addition, lemon juice. It’s the acid of the lemon juice that helps to create the pectin set of marmalade, by boiling the lemon and orange juice with the pulp. We’re then given a very interesting instruction, “boil the whole pretty fast until it will jelly” – the first use I have found of the word ‘jelly’ in marmalade making. Mary Kettilby instructs that the mixture is then poured into glasses, covered and left until set. As the acid would create a jelly, this meant that the mixture could be pulled from the heat before it had turned to a paste, keeping the colour much brighter and the appearance much more translucent. This brings us very close to the classic marmalade we know today.

What we also see in the early 1700s is cooks using marmalade as an ingredient and accompaniment, rather than simply a sweetmeat to be eaten on it’s own. Robert Smith, variously cook to King William III, the Dukes of Buckingham and Ormonde and the French Ambassador, the duc d’Aumont, published a cookery book in 1725 titled “Court Cookery, or The Compleat English Cook” 6 and in it gives a recipe for rice pudding made with a layer of orange marmalade at the bottom as well as (common at the time but very unusual today) pieces of beef marrow to add richness.

The Keillers of Dundee, James and his mother Janet, were very important in the popularisation of marmalade and are thought to have been amongst the first commercial producers of marmalade, and certainly the most well known. For the first half of the 19th century their brand of Dundee Marmalade, available affordably to the working classes, was extremely popular and was the forerunner of today’s best-selling brands.

The many hundreds of marmalades that will be judged at the World Marmalade Festival and Awards are all linked to this history in some way, and even those with more exotic flavours and additions have a relationship with the spiced sweetmeat pastes of the Elizabethans. So every time you make or buy a jar, remember the long history that has led to that beautiful and complex flavour as you spoon it onto your morning toast.



1 Oxford English Dictionary
2 Ivan Day,
3 Robert Lovell, A Compleat Herball, Oxford, 1665
4 The recipe book of Madam Eliza Cholmondeley, Chester Records Office
5 Mary Kettilby ,“A Collection of Above Three Hundred Receipts in Cookery, Physick and Surgery” 1714
6 Robert Smith, “Court Cookery, The Compleat English Cook” 1725

Further reading: The book of marmalade: its antecedents, its history, and its role in the world today, together with a collection of recipes for marmalades and marmalade cookery, by C. Anne Wilson, available from Prospect Books.