Each winter we have stacks of fruit boxes teetering precariously in the garage that I try to ignore until finally cannot. An 84-year-old organic grower friend sends us boxes and boxes of Japanese citrus such as buntan, a native grapefruit that yields hauntingly tantalizing zest; or natsumikan a sour, yet bright lemony-flavored tangerine; as well as small pale lemons with flowery smelling skin and intensely juicy oranges. I know I should be making marmalade, yet somehow I put it off each day. December is too busy with Christmas preparations (cookies, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day) that segue into Japanese New Year preparations (mochi making in the garden and New Year’s Eve dinner). And February we are usually in California. So that leaves a small window in January that sometimes slips away if I let it.
Now that the boys are in school, the February trip is off the books, so in January, I went to Food Blogger Camp in Cancun and Patricia Wells’ Truffle Class in Provence instead. This year the boxes had a new home in the old bathhouse outside my kitchen. The longer you wait the tougher the skins get on citrus fruit unless you wrap them individually in newspaper. And we all know that wasn’t going to happen. Also there is the inevitable powdery blue-green mold that develops. The guilty truth is that some years we end up with boxes of moldy citrus. That is the reality.
About 13 years ago, Tadaaki found an organic citrus grower and I started making marmalade from Susan Herrmann Loomis’ French Farmhouse Cookbook. At first we ordered the fruit through a natural farming group, but as the years went on, we began calling the grower directly. And she would call us back to check how we liked it. “Mama!” she would boom at the other end of the receiver…not my favorite name, but I gave up correcting her. In late 2001 we moved into my parents-in-law’s farmhouse that we had renovated. And I remember fielding calls from Mochizuki-san during Christmas dinners. I stood in the fax closet so that I could hear better, and didn’t have the heart to tell her we had guests. Her husband was in the end stages of a battle with cancer and she was lonely.
So we talked. And talked. And so the relationship grew. Eventually her family and our family met up half way in Atami for the day. Later she came to visit us by train. We returned the visit by plane (and boat), bringing along my father and stepmother. Mochizuki-san lives on a remote island near Hiroshima. Her son and daughter-in-law live on the same property, but do not help with the citrus growing and there are only a few other growers on the island, mostly elderly. I am in awe of Mochizuki-san’s drive to keep growing, despite her increasing years, and that pushes me to somehow get the marmalade done.
I’ve often had help cutting up the fruit. For a price of course. And sometimes I asked my ex-babysitter to help with the canning. But these last few years I’ve left the marmalade project totally in the hands of a couple assistants from Sunny-Side Up!, my little immersion English school. I had lost heart.
Last year when I came back from Food Blogger Camp, my marmalade was waiting on the counter, as if magically prepared by the kitchen fairies. I felt guilty reading David Lebovitz’s post on tracking down (expensive) citrus in Paris and the painstaking process of cutting up fruit for his marmalade. I wanted to write about my marmalade saga, but how could I?
The truth is, I had begun to hate my marmalade. I no longer enjoyed the dark intensity of the marmalade I had developed and longed for a brighter, fresher taste. I tried making the Japanese style of marmalade, which yields a thinner, wetter jam. It was tasty at first, but the back bite of intense citrus oil got tiring and the marmalade didn’t keep well. The marmalade made by my assistants was good, but somehow not right. It wasn’t mine.
I had lunch at Chez Panisse with some friends and my sister on my way home from Mexico in January. Elise slipped me a jar of Rosemary-Infused Meyer Lemon Marmalade made from her tree that had fallen. And it tasted like Elise…bright, subtle, and tart. But more than that, Elise’s handiwork inspired me to push myself to take back my marmalade operation.
And so I did. (With a little help.)
I roped my sometime SSU! assistant, Chizuru into helping (for a price) and together we cut up 12 kilos of citrus (native Japanese grapefruit, sour tangerines, navel oranges, and lemons), to which I added 4 liters of fresh squeezed juice and 16 liters of water before soaking them overnight. The next day, I dumped in 16 kilos of organic sugar and put the mixture on to boil for a couple hours while I ran out to the home center to buy new jars. No time to fuss with sterilizing (leaving that evening for France), I jarred them up as is. Way back in the beginning of my marmalade making, I would actually sterilize and jar up in ever increasingly larger jars. Now I fill up some medium-sized jars and pour the rest of the marmalade in 2- or 4-liter oversized jars used for making sour plum-infused cordial.
Back from France, this time the marmalade left on my counter is my own. And this marmalade is the best I have ever made. I had enjoyed the peaceful cutting up ritual and I had not fought the process. And you can taste that.
Residual jetlag has me waking at 4 or 5, eventually jumping out of bed around 6 or 7 to rustle up some coffee and toast with marmalade. And it’s worth jumping out of bed early (just to jump back in with my laptop propped on top of the covers). Warm and cozy, I drink my morning Peets’ pouring out dollops from my thermos cup into my favorite Mashiko yaki coffee cup and nibble bites of my pain au levain, with unsalted Hokkaido butter and this year’s marmalade.
And each year I wonder if this will be the last year for Mochizuki-san to send us fruit.
Susan Herrmann Loomis’ Orange Marmalade: The first year I made this I halved the sugar. Big mistake. The sugar to liquid ratio was not enough to make a syrup. It was a big, soupy disaster. The next year, I kept the sugar as is, but also cut the water almost in half. That worked. Also I simplified the recipe, so here it is: Weigh out 3 kilos mixed varieties of organic citrus. Cut the fruit in half and squeeze out the juice. You should have about 1 liter. Cut the citrus skins into a small, even dice. Put cut citrus, juice, and 3 liters water in a large stock or jam pot. Soak overnight. The following day, add 4 kilos sugar and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Stir occasionally and boil for 1½ to 1¾ hours (increase cooking time if you multiply the recipe). Cook until you can see large bubbles and the mixture is thick and syrupy. Check to see if the marmalade has set by dribbling some of the syrup onto a small plate and putting in freezer for a couple minutes. Fill sterilized jars up the very top, top with marmalade; cap, and turn upside down immediately to cool. Done. Do not refrigerate, even once opened.