Delightfully Bitter Marmalade from Seville Oranges

Just as I’d imagined, orange trees lined the streets of Sevilla, Spain, where I found myself for a few hours several winters ago. As I reached for a fruit though, my friend stopped me: The oranges of Sevilla belong to the government. I could be arrested for picking one off a tree—although there are 25,000 such trees in Sevilla.

Instead I picked one off the ground. This was the first time I’d held a Seville orange—or bitter orange, or sour orange—the orange of British marmalade, and the only kind of orange Europe knew for five hundred years. How was Citrus aurantium different from the navels I knew so well?

This orange appeared more squat, broader than tall, with a slightly indented stem end. There was, of course, no navel at the blossom end. The skin was bumpier and had a lovely aroma a little different from that of sweet oranges. I furtively peeled the fruit, half hiding it in my coat. The peel was thinner than a navel’s, rougher inside, and easy to remove. I quickly ate the flesh, spitting out the seeds. It seemed neither bitter nor especially sour. In fact, it tasted rather bland. Had I eaten a true Seville orange, a milder variety of C. aurantium, or some unfamiliar variety of sweet orange (C. sinensis) growing in Sevilla? My friend couldn’t tell me.

The soon-to-be-published Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves wouldn’t be complete without a recipe for Seville orange marmalade, but I finally accepted that the book would always be incomplete in multiple ways; I couldn’t be an expert on preserving all the world’s fruits. After all, I seldom strayed far from my home in Oregon, and Seville oranges simply weren’t available there. The oranges of Seville were all exported to Britain for marmalade.

Although nineteenth- and twentieth-century American cookbooks offered recipes for marmalade made from sweet oranges and other fruits, the authors seldom mentioned bitter oranges. That’s because practically the only Americans who had access to bitter oranges, until recently, were those who lived in southernmost areas of the country (or near West Indian grocery stores in places like New York City). Before the Spanish had ever tasted sweet oranges, they planted bitter ones in warm regions of the New World. In Florida, the trees went wild. When Florida’s commercial citrus industry got underway in the nineteenth century, hardy bitter-orange seedlings were used as rootstock for sweet orange scions, but the seedy, sour, bitter fruit had no commercial value. The bitter-orange trees continued to thrive in the woods, though, and in both Florida and California gardeners could collect bitter oranges when old rootstock would outlive scion wood. In Arizona, according to David Karp, residents used to pick bitter oranges from ornamental street trees and ship them to Canada, where home cooks maintained a tradition of making of British-style marmalade.1 But most U.S. residents knew oranges only of the sweet species, especially California navels and Florida Valencias.

Happily for home preservers, things have changed. In 2010 David Karp reported on a new eighty-acre bitter-orange orchard situated, appropriately, in Seville, California. A company called Vita-Pakt, Karp said, was making most of the fruit into a base for commercial marmalade makers, and also producing juice for Caribbean sauce makers and brewers of Belgian-style white ales. And some of the oranges were being sold to the fresh market.2

So when I was planning a trip to Portland last month, to talk about pickles in the Incredible Edible Garden at the Yard, Garden and Patio Show, and considering what else I might accomplish while in the city, I looked at the gray winter sky and thought citrus. In my part of the state, I can buy navels, mandarins, and even tangelos, but those are generally all the orange-colored citrus that’s available in local supermarkets. In the big city, though, one of the fashionable new supermarkets I’d heard about would surely have Seville oranges.

And that’s how I ended up in New Seasons Market, gawking at skinny legs in skinny jeans and astonishing price tags and wondering if the obesity epidemic might be ended simply by doubling food prices everywhere. Even more interesting than the svelte shoppers, though, was the produce section. I walked round and round the citrus area, astounded at the variety, which included not one but two kinds of kumquats and nearly every other sort of citrus I’d ever read about except for Bhudda’s hand, which perhaps was actually there somewhere waggling a finger at me.

I found the Seville oranges. They looked just like the oranges I’d seen in Sevilla, and they were in perfect condition–firm, oily-skinned, and aromatic. The price of two dollars per pound would have been a lot to pay for eating oranges, but I needed only a few bitter ones to make a year’s worth of marmalade. I bought a bagful.

At home that night my husband and I shared one of the oranges. Again: strong, distinct aroma; loose rind; seeds. But, surprise! The flesh was very sour and rather bitter besides. I can’t explain why these oranges were different from the one I tasted in Spain; perhaps they were of a different variety, or perhaps the difference was in growing conditions or the maturity of the fruit. In any case, I knew that the California-grown bitter oranges would be perfect for marmalade.

I consulted my British preserving books and, especially, C. Anne Wilson’s Book of Marmalade: Its Antecedents, Its History and Its Role in the World Today (New York:  St. Martin’s, 1985). I found, interestingly, that most old and newer recipes included the juice of a lemon. Why would you need lemon juice in sour orange marmalade? Not for pectin, as many people think; bitter oranges have plenty of pectin, and lemon juice has very little. In all citrus fruits, the pectin is mainly in the peel and pith and around the seeds. Lemon juice is added to jams and jellies because the acid helps the pectin do the work of jelling. Perhaps lemon juice was included in orange marmalade recipes because, as I’d learned already, not all Seville oranges are particularly sour. For the sake of tradition, I decided to add lemon juice to my marmalade.

I also decided to include the mildly bitter albedo, the white part of the orange peel, because in the oldest recipes cooks always included it. If they left out any part of the orange, in fact, it would have been some of the outer orange rind, where bitterness as well as aroma is concentrated.3

The final recipe turned out much like my recipe for sweet orange marmalade in The Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves, except that the sweet-orange recipe combines oranges and lemons, peels and all, in imitation of the true . . .

Seville Orange Marmalade
Makes about 5 pints

2¼ pounds (about 8) Seville oranges
9 cups water
9 cups sugar
¼ cup lemon juice

Halve the oranges, squeeze out the juice, and strain it, reserving the seeds and membranes. You should have about 1½ cups juice. Reserve it in a covered container in the refrigerator. Scrape any remaining membranes from the peels (if you’ve used an electric juicer, they will be pretty clean). Tie the seeds and membranes in a piece of cheesecloth. Cut the peel halves in half again, and then cut the pieces crosswise into slivers.

Put the peel shreds and water into a large preserving pan, and add the water and the cheesecloth bundle. Simmer the mixture uncovered for about two hours, until the peel shreds are tender, and then turn off the heat. Remove the cheesecloth bundle to a bowl, and leave the bundle until it has cooled enough to handle. Then squeeze it firmly. Return the liquid to the pan.

Add the sugar, the reserved orange juice, and the lemon juice to the pan. Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Boil the mixture to 221 degrees Fahrenheit or until the syrup mounds slightly in a chilled bowl. Remove the pan from the heat, and let the marmalade cool in the pan for several minutes, so the peel shreds won’t float in the jars. Then transfer the marmalade to pint or half-pint sterilized mason jars, leaving ¼ inch headspace. Add lids and rings, and process the jars in a boiling-water bath for 5 minutes.

Remove the jars to a rack or pad to cool, and leave them undisturbed for a day or longer. Jelling will occur gradually over this period.

The finished marmalade should be softly jelled and spreadable, like jam. You’ll find it quite bitter, but also sweet and sour and chewy—a wonderful, grownup topping for morning toast, a complementary filling for chocolate layer cake, or a flavorful glaze for grilled meat. (My husband is begging for smoked gouda to eat with the marmalade. He fell asleep last night imagining the taste.)

1. “Sour Oranges Find Sweet Spot in California.” Los Angeles Times, January 13, 2010.
2. Ibid.
3. Despite what cookbooks and cooking teachers may tell you, the albedo of the sweet orange has no bitterness at all. Some may say that the bitterness develops only with heating, but if you boil the albedo of sweet oranges after removing every bit of the orange part of the rind, you’ll find that no bitter taste develops. When recipes say to leave out all the white part of the peel, the reason involves appearance, texture, or volume, not bitterness.

19 thoughts on “Delightfully Bitter Marmalade from Seville Oranges”

  1. I loved this post Linda, not only for the humorous (and apt) observation of the oh-so-hip Portland food scene, but also because it’s about my favorite fruit spread! I think I’ll see if I can find a Seville Orange tree to grow here on the patio!

    1. Lorrie, I’m sorry I didn’t finish editing the post before you read it. I have now learned that, somehow, hitting the space bar several times in succession means “Publish”!

  2. I am fascinated by sour oranges lately, so reading this was much appreciated. My mother, who lives in Florida, sends me citrus she finds, like calamondins, which I enjoy a great deal, but also sour oranges, which took me a while to appreciate fully. A neighbor of hers has an orange tree that reverted to its root stock and allowed her to take as much as she wanted. I was the beneficiary of these (now, I see) wonderful fruit. I have yet to make a marmalade from them, but really fell in love with their interesting, sour taste that has a note I can only call floral. I’ve used them primarily for cocktail making: sour mix and triple sec, and I’ve peels saved for candying. After reading about the sour oranges of Florida, I suspected it was something like a Seville. Next year when I get my shipment, I’ll make your marmalade!

  3. I had no idea it was illegal to pick them. When I studied abroad in Spain I didn’t bother “foraging” because I knew they were sour and why would I want to eat them? And in fact I wondered, “why plant sour oranges everywhere, how useless?” Such ignorance! I love this photo and how the peel is perfectly suspended. If I can find any Seville oranges, I know what to do now.

  4. My solution to not having access to oranges bitter and flavorful enough for decent marmalade has been to add grapefruit. So it’s three-fruit marmalade every year for Christmas presents. I figure it’s better to make something different than a weak imitation. But if I had some Sevilles…. those jars look really good.

  5. Were your Seville oranges organic?And if so, do you know the name of supermarket? I mail order mine from California and they try to minimize spraying but there are no guarantees. If I could find an organic source, that would be fabulous.

    1. Julia, The oranges came from New Seasons Market. I don’t know whether they were organic, and I don’t know what farm they came from. David Karp might be able to help you find an organic source.

  6. Usually if something is organic New Seasons says so — I can’t remember whether the Sevilles were or not, but probably would have cost more than $2 lb if they were (as a frequent but non-svelte NS shopper I’m just sayin…). Have to give them props for selling all sorts of interesting citrus. I have seen both kinds of citron (Buddha’s hand and etrog), bergamot, meiwa and nagami kumquats, blood oranges, rangpur and persian limes, but since prices for most those usually start north of $4 a lb I only splurge if the recipe calls for less than a couple lbs worth. I’ve been using the recipes in the Blue Chair Jam book for the last few years. It’s a three day process where you tediously slice and seed about half the fruit (white rind gets included) and extract juice from the rest (and the seeds and other pithy bits from the slices). If you are careful not to use too much water the final cooking might take less than an hour :). I’ve made Seville Cinnamon, Seville Piloncillo, and “English” and few other recipes from BCJB. Lovely, bitter product.

  7. The state capitol of California in Sacramento is surrounded by Seville orange trees, and in December/early January, you can see people crouch-walking through the fog, picking up fallen oranges along the sidewalks. (There’s also an E-W street in Sacramento, I think it’s T St., south of the capitol, where Seville orange trees have been used in one stretch as street trees.) My impression is that the skins of Seville oranges are oilier than those of Navels and Valencias, but perhaps their oil content is affected by the temperature and growing conditions?

    1. Jan, thanks for that wonderful information! I wonder how many Sacramento residents make orange marmalade.

      Is it possible that the skins only seem oilier because the oranges you pick (or pick up) yourself are so fresh?

      1. The freshness could well be the answer! Another possible factor was dryness: the trees were unirrigated—trees planted in the strips between the curb and the sidewalk frequently suffer from lack of water; and no rain falls in Sacramento from April through October, so the juice and oils in the fruit could have been unusually concentrated.

        I should have added that I don’t know if the trees are still producing—the last I saw of and harvested from them was in 1991, when they were already very old. But they were famous and loved by all marmalade makers for many decades.

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