As a novice preserver, I made my first batch of marmalade in 1987. Like Seville oranges before they ripen, I was very green about how to make marmalade. I didn’t know that if I wanted to make award winning marmalade, I needed time, skill and passion.
A conversation with my local greengrocer near Bromsgrove introduced me to the name of an orange farm in Mairena del Alcor, called Ave Maria. He told me the best oranges for marmalade were grown at Ave Maria. I remember the stylish boxes gracing the windows of the greengrocer; the single estate, organic oranges, like the banners on the boxes, have stood the test of time.
Thirty seven years later, I still use their aromatic, brightly coloured bitter oranges and I am feeling hugely privileged after my visit to meet the owners and tour the farm last week, with my friend Jennifer Barnaby and her husband Jim.
Ave Maria Farm
The farm was approached by a long drive, flanked by rows of dense orange trees. The height of an average tree is 7 metres, but can go up to 10 metres. These trees, like olive trees, generate new branches from the old trunks and can live for up to 100 years. The trees have a rounded shape, and oranges grow in bunches.
First planted by the Moors, the bitter orange tree has a long history in Andalusia. Visitors to the Royal Palace Alcazar in Seville are shown a bitter orange tree planted in the 14th century. Orange trees often thrive beside palm trees, cypresses, medlars, jasmine and peach trees.
The family home stands magnificently at the top of the drive. Amadora, her two daughters and son in law welcomed us and over orange juice, cake and coffee we discussed the history, present day and future prospects for the farm.
The visit coincided with the harvest, packing and shipping of Naveline oranges. French and German buyers like large Navelines, the English prefer medium size. From the middle of December the bitter, Seville oranges would be ripe, although there were some just ripe ones for us to take home.
At the beginning of the Seville orange harvest, 5,000 kilos are cut ( not picked) each day, rising to 30,000 a day. Apart from Christmas Day, harvesting, grading, packing and shipping continues daily into March.
The family are passionate about their bitter oranges, as traditional orchards are disappearing at an alarming rate each year. In 1986 there were 1400. In 2013, just 400. One reason is the unregulated picking and selling of the street oranges. These are inferior bitter oranges, grown in cities and parks. Many are polluted by traffic. Once picked they are mainly sold to factories in the North of Spain for pulping, for as little as 10 cents a kilo.
The pulp is exported to marmalade manufacturers, to be made into jars of marmalade which grace many breakfast tables in the UK. This practice undermines the business in Ave Maria and compromises the price they get for their oranges. I was unaware of the difference between the oranges grown at Ave Maria and the street oranges. It was similar to discovering the difference between free range and battery reared poultry.
Our tour of Ave Maria Farm
Our tour of the orange grove started with the oranges destined for Waitrose. The packaging used by supermarkets determines the weight and shape of the oranges picked for them. The air was heavy with the characteristic aroma of bitter oranges, and it was clean, fresh air.
As only some of the bitter oranges were ripe and ready for cutting, they were selected with care. Experienced pickers from Romania, climbed the trees looking for ripe oranges. They searched for unblemished fruit with an even, bright orange colour. The fruit was cut with a light weight, secateur just above the calyx to prevent it from drying out when packed.
Once picked, the oranges were taken to be brushed, mechanically, not washed as this would destroy their organic status, graded for size and packed into boxes ready for shipping. Some of the oranges in each box were wrapped in branded paper. In the past they were all wrapped in paper to prevent spoilage during long journeys. These days, shipping times are shorter, but for sentimental reasons, a few of the oranges in each box are still wrapped. Our day flew by and we came away inspired and laden with bags of oranges both sweet and bitter, for making into marmalade.
I started to plan the recipes I wanted to make when I arrived home. The visit left a lasting impression. During the grey days of winter in England, I expect my mind to wander frequently back to Ave Maria, and when Spring arrives I’ll imagine the heady orange blossom on the trees, with the promise of fruit in December.
Ave Maria Farm
Jennifer Barnaby Gustia Food..
For marmalade recipes First Preserves: Marmalades and First Preserves: Marmalades-Jams-Chutneys