“I got the blues thinking of the future, so I left off and made some marmalade. It’s amazing how it cheers one up to shred oranges …” D.H.Lawrence

Throughout the countryside and along our seashore, incremental seasonal peaks determine our passage across the culinary year. They have done so for centuries. Apples, partridge, asparagus, strawberries, oysters, new potatoes, Spring lamb, parsnips – these and many others establish gastronomic beacons that can be used to fix and define our British household menu.

So although I’m happy to fly the world in search of gastronomic excitement, I resist, as often as I can, the desire to have my food flown to me.

However, there are life-sustaining exceptions. I cannot live without fresh coffee beans and I cannot cook without a constant supply of lemons. And from the middle of January, few household breakfasts can pass without homemade Seville Orange Marmalade on buttered toast.

I await the arrival of these thick-skinned Spanish orbs soon after Christmas in the same way I anticipate asparagus spears seeking early daylight, bud-burst on potato plants heralding the bounty beneath, or the first plump pea pods as Summer warms.

Although they are unquestionably short on looks (frequently invoking the photographic close-ups of W H Auden, or the scrotal aphorisms of my local greengrocer) the oranges of Seville have an intensely sharp bitterness, unique amongst the Rutaceae genus. But when boiled with an alarmingly high volume of sugar – so energising that it could sweep away any natural reluctance to join a fun run – manage to subdue a latent sweetness and offer the most intense flavour profile found amongst the citrus family.

One personal caveat here, jams, preserves and marmalades usher in something of a metaphysical labyrinth for me. I have over-boiled, under-cooked and laid waste to more preserves than I care to remember.  When a supple setting point is required – as opposed to either hydrous fluidity or full mummification – that finely balanced moment can sometimes feel as elusive as the medieval alchemist willing gold from molten lead. In short, when it comes to tackling this fugitive chemistry, I reach out and grasp any available assistance.

As if to summon an imagined culinary dominatrix, I throw myself on the soothing succour that is Delia Smith OBE – the Nanny Mcphee of today’s Aga generation. Far more Women’s Institute than Heston Blumenthal, demurely channeling Fiona Bruce rather than Fran Lebowitz – she alone has guided me with unerring certainty through many such homespun recipes. So forgive me for misappropriating an observation by my favourite American historian; Howard Zinn, but “the bubbling of change under the surface of obedience” rather sums up my ongoing preserve-based relationship with our ennobled cookery writer.

Traditional Seville Orange Marmalade from Delia’s How to Cook. Book Three (2001)

You will need a large heavy-based saucepan with a capacity of 6.5 litres or a heavy-based preserving pan. A 30cm square piece of muslin or a double thickness of gauze from the chemist. Some string, a preserves funnel, a kitchen timer and 6 x 450g jars with lids and 6 waxed paper discs.

1kg Seville oranges
1 large lemon
2.5 litres water
2kg preserving sugar
a little butter

Begin by lightly buttering the base of the saucepan (to help prevent the marmalade catching) measure 2.5 litres of water into the pan.
Then cut the lemon and oranges in half and squeeze the juice out of them.
When you are buying Seville oranges the rougher the skin the better and the larger ones are always less fiddly.
Add the juice to the water and place the pips and any bits of pith that cling to the squeezer on the square of gauze or muslin.
Now cut the orange peel into quarters with a sharp knife, and then one by one, fold and squeeze the quarters tightly together and cut them into shreds.
As you cut, add the shreds to the water and any pips or spare pith you come across should go onto the gauze or muslin. The pith contains a lot of pectin so don’t discard any and don’t worry about any pith and skin that clings to the shreds – it all gets dissolved in the boiling. (The lemon can be included or not, I usually just use the orange peel).
Now tie the pips and pith up loosely in the gauze or muslin to form a little bag, and tie this on to the handle of the pan so that the bag is suspended in the water.
Then bring the liquid up to simmering point and simmer very gently, uncovered, for 2 hours or thereabouts, until the peel is completely soft.
Meanwhile, chill three side plates in the fridge or the freezer compartment of the fridge.
Next, remove the bag of pips and leave it to cool on a plate.
Then pour the sugar into the pan and stir it now and then over a low heat, until all the crystals have dissolved.
Now increase the heat to its highest and squeeze the bag of pips over the plate to extract all of the sticky, jelly-like substance that contains the pectin, as you squeeze you’ll see it ooze out.
Then using a balloon whisk, whisk it into the rest of the ingredients in the pan. As soon as the mixture reaches a really fast boil, start timing. Give it an occasional stir, then after 15 minutes, remove the pan from the heat and spoon a little of the marmalade onto one of the cold plates from the fridge, and let it cool back in the fridge, for a few minutes.
When it has cooled, you can test if you have a ‘set’ by pushing the mixture with your little finger: if it has a really crinkly skin, it is set. If not, continue to boil the marmalade and give it the same test at about 5 minute intervals until it does set. You may need to test it two or three times. After that remove the pan from the heat. If there’s a lot of scum, most of it can be dispersed by stirring in half a teaspoon of butter, and the rest can be spooned off.
Leave the marmalade to settle for 20 minutes then pour into hot sterilised jars.