Seville service

Don't get in a jam over marmalade - just follow Nigella's old recipe

Some types of cookery seem to belong to the most nerdish branch of hobbyism. Why pursue them, when there are acceptable, cheap, ready-made alternatives available? Mr Keiller invented marmalade, according to legend; Frank Cooper's version has devotees; the Tiptree brand is good. Boiling up your own preserve is about as necessary, one might think, as knitting your own mobile-phone cover.

Nevertheless, there are three decent reasons for making marmalade. The first is that it is a kind of celebration of a distinctive, bitter fruit, the Seville orange. Special foods such as Sevilles or rhubarb or English asparagus are seasonal: their prime is as ephemeral as blossom, and to be cherished for that reason. You need to hurry to the shops now: the Sevilles will disappear in February. Reason two is that there is satisfaction to be gained from making things. And reason three is that your marmalade should - if perhaps chiefly because of that satisfaction - taste better than the commercial products. There is a zingy quality to the balance of tart Sevilles and sugar that the brands cannot quite match.

Sevilles are special because of the high level of pectin, the stuff that sets preserves, in their pith and pips. But getting the most from these ingredients involves one of the off-putting procedures in marmalade recipes. I have never bought a muslin bag - in which you are supposed to wrap these pectin-filled treasures - in my life. I have no idea where this item is sold.

Nigella to the rescue. In How To Eat, Nigella Lawson gives a recipe that saves you from the fussiest part of marmalade-making. Instead, you wash the oranges and cook them whole. Then you chop them up and boil them with sugar. It looks easy. Nigella, though, confesses that she has never done it: that may be why she leaves a couple of points unclear. Do you simmer your 700g of oranges in 1.2 litres of water in a covered or uncovered pan? I covered it. When they are soft, you remove them but retain the water; then you cut them up. I often have trouble picturing a finished dish when I am in the middle of preparing it, and I was not sure how finely to slice the peel; I left the chunks rather large.

You add the juice of two lemons, and boil the orange pips and lemon pips for five minutes. You return the orange mixture and the strained pip juice to the pan. What, with all that water? If you are experienced in this field, you will think that a naive question; but the mixture appeared very dilute to me.

Anyway, I poured in 1.4kg of sugar, and brought it all back to the boil. There was no sign of its reaching setting point after the advertised 15 minutes. But, after 30 minutes, a miracle occurred: a teaspoon of it, placed in the fridge to cool, wrinkled to the touch.

The marmalade filled five jars. It tastes good enough to convert my cooking habits.

Nicholas Clee, the NS food columnist, is the author of Don’t Sweat the Aubergine: What Works in the Kitchen and Why (Short Books). He is a former editor of The Bookseller, and writes about books for papers including the Times, Guardian, and Times Literary Supplement.

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, God