news from up the creek


Making a cherished condiment with local citrus.


news up creek

Most of the citrus that we grow on our farm we make into marmalade. There is a division of labor here: I grow the trees and harvest the fruit, and my wife, Dianne, runs the jam kitchen. We make traditional, British-style orange marmalade from Seville bitter oranges, as well as marmalades from other citrus fruits: Bearss limes, Meyer lemons, bergamots, yuzus, navels, and moro oranges. Sometimes Dianne combines several varieties of citrus in one marmalade or adds flavors, such as Meyer lemon with vanilla bean.

The process for making marmalade is similar, with slight variations, among the different kinds of citrus. The recipe given here is for moro orange, a variety native to Sicily but widely grown in California. Moro is in a category known as blood oranges because of their dark red pulp and juice. Other blood orange varieties found locally include tarocco and sanguinello. Of these, moro is the most bitter and strongly colored, making it best suited for marmalade. Moro differs from a regular orange in flavor as well as in color; it tastes like an orange but also has notes of raspberry, as well as a smoky, earthy aspect.

In making marmalade, it is important to start with freshly harvested fruit; same-day harvest is best. Citrus fruits can last for many weeks in storage without damage to the pulp that we normally eat, but the skins rapidly become tough in storage. Since the citrus peel is a critical part of marmalade, fruit that has been in storage will be too tough and should be avoided.

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The traditional jam pans that we use are made from thick, solid copper. This material conducts heat evenly and so prevents the jam from burning or sticking as it cooks. The shallow profiles of the pans provide large surface areas for evaporation, which speed jam making when you are trying to boil off water to increase jam thickness. The pans are expensive but worth having if you make a lot of jam. Think of them as heirlooms to be passed down through many generations. Your great-grandchildren may not remember you, but they will know whose pan they are using.

Addition of pectin is not necessary. In this recipe, the citrus fruit has enough pectin to set up firmly. If you read the label on a jar of cheap, industrial-made marmalade at the supermarket, you’ll notice that the first ingredient is sugar, the second high-fructose corn syrup, the third a bit of fruit, then pectin. Such marmalade is mostly sugar and has so little fruit in it that additional pectin is required in order for it to set.

The Sacramento region is at the northern end of California’s citrus belt. We always risk losing the crop to an early freeze, and in an unusually bad year (for example, 1932 and 1990), an extreme freeze even will kill the citrus trees. On the plus side, frosty weather brings out the flavor and sweetness of citrus, so mandarins from Placer County and oranges from Winters are far more flavorful than the same varieties grown in Southern California. In the case of moro oranges, frosty weather also intensifies the color. We generally wait until mid-January or early February to make the moro orange marmalade.

Mike Madison operates a family farm near Winters, Calif., producing olives (Yolo Press Olive Oil), figs, apricots, melons, and cut flowers. His books about Sacramento Valley agriculture include Walking the Flatlands and Blithe Tomato.


Moro Orange Marmalade (Dianne Madison’s recipe)

(courtesy of Dianne Madison. Makes 18 cups)

7 pounds freshly harvested moro oranges, washed and cut into slices ⅛ inch thick, seeds discarded

6 pounds sugar

¾ cup lemon juice, plus more if needed

Cut orange rounds into quarters. Place fruit in bowl and cover with water. Refrigerate overnight.

The next day, drain water from fruit and transfer to copper jam pan. Add fresh water to just cover fruit. Heat to boil, turn heat to low, and simmer 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat, let cool to room temperature, then refrigerate overnight.

The next day, return the pan to the stove. Add sugar. Cook over moderate heat for 45 minutes, stirring intermittently. Adjust acidity by adding lemon juice to bring pH below 4. If you are not equipped to measure pH, add ¾ cup lemon juice. Cook additional 15 minutes, then check temperature. When temperature of marmalade is between 212 and 220 degrees F, put marmalade into sterile jars and process with your usual canning technique.