Marmalade: The rise and fall of the Seville orange

 For me, marmalade is my favourite preserve to make and eat. It’s a skill set I never tire of replicating and sharing with others.perfect jars of marmaladeThere is no better way to beat the January blues than by making marmalade. 2029 will mark 100 years since the UK publication of authentic marmalade recipes. However, almost a century of traditional marmalade making is under threat. Marmalade making, as I know it is in danger of becoming a niche hobby. The last 30years has seen a seismic change in the quality of marmalade made by many home cooks and artisans.  

I have over thirty years experience making and teaching traditional marmalade.

I have won awards for my preserves, notably the Marmalade Awards. I qualified as a W.I. Preserves Judge at a time when the quality of tuition was exceptional. Before COVID when teaching was chiefly in person, I was one of the most booked preserves tutor in the U.K.

I would like to explore why the organic Seville orange makes the king of marmalades and the origins of marmalade, address the reasons behind the decline in preservation education and training and how the internet has made finding reliable recipes a challenge. Why some competitions have muddied the waters regarding definitions of marmalade and what I get out of taking a bowl of Seville oranges and converting them into the best preserve on toast.

Definition of Marmalade. 

A preserve made from citrus fruits.
It looks like wobbly jelly with suspended slices of cooked peel.
On toast it is spreadable but not runny.
The flavour is a balance of the fruit and sugar.


 Seville oranges King Marmalade recipe

Cut in half an organic Seville orange and you will see three elements that make this citrus the perfect choice for marmalade. The fruit has pips and along with the juice and the thick pith they provide the pectin that helps marmalade to set. The pith turns translucent when cooked, when you look at a jar you will be drawn to the shreds of peel and not the pith attached to the peel. Seville oranges are great value fruit for marmalade. 1kg of Sevilles will make 3kg of marmalade. Although they are full of pectin, a natural setting agent, they require added acid, usually lemon juice to balance the ratio of pectin to acid.


Origins of Marmalade  

Port records in England and Scotland towards the end of the fifteenth century record boxes of marmelada, a paste made from Portuguese Quince. At that time Quince was known for its healing properties so perhaps it helped Mary Queen of Scots, suffering from sea sickness in 1561 when she famously asked for this remedy.

Orange marmalade recipes appeared in English cookery books  during the seventeenth century. In 1677, Elizabeth  Cholmondeley recorded a sweetmeat Marmelet of Oranges. In 1681, Rebecca Price shared her mother’s recipe for marmalade, the peel was sliced thinly, boiled in water until tender then combined with the orange pulp and a ratio of  450g sugar : 4 oranges. The mixture was cooked to a thick consistency.

Changes in what made a  good breakfast came with the introduction of drinking tea and eating toast, rather than drinking ale with toast floating in it. Toast needed an accompaniment and Janet Keiller famously using a French method, transformed a box of Seville oranges by shredding the peel, adding more water and sugar and reducing the cooked mixture to a less firm consistency. It was poured into pots and was spreadable on toast.

By 1797 the James Keiller and Son factory in Dundee was up and running producing marmalade commercially. Subsequent factories were opened in Edinburgh and London. By the mid  1800’s an estimated 1.5 million jars of Keiller’s marmalade was produced in one year. 

In 1861 Isabella Beeton’s Book of Household Management included recipes for preserves. The book sold 60 thousand copies, introducing a wider audience to making marmalade. Sadly today, traditional marmalade making is under threat for a number of reasons. One obvious factor is climate change, and how it impacts the fruit trees and harvest.

Climate change 

Cultivated in Seville by the Muslim Moors around the 10th century, the bitter orange originates from China. Initially, the Moors wanted to make perfume from the orange blossom.

The tree often thrives beside palm trees, cypresses, medlars, jasmine and peach trees. The height of an average tree is 7metres, but can go up to 10 metres. The trees, like olive trees, generate new branches from the old trunks and occasionally live up to 100 years. The trees have a rounded shape, and oranges grow in bunches.

The weather frequently impacts the harvest. For example, in 2022 between July to November, temperatures reached 45C. Consequently, the Seville oranges were not ripe in early December when the harvest began.

Buyers in UK expected their Sevilles in time for the annual marmalade season at the beginning of January, and there was a shortage. My local market sold green tinged, under ripe fruit that did not make great marmalade. I don’t remember a worse year for oranges. In 2024 the organic oranges sold in Uk were riper but there was a shortage of best quality ones.


Street oranges 

Traditional orchards are disappearing at an alarming rate each year. In 1986 there were 1400. In 2013, just 400.

One reason is the farmers cannot compete on price due to the unregulated picking and selling of inferior bitter oranges, grown in cities and parks.

Many of these street orange trees are polluted by traffic. Once picked, the oranges are frequently sold to factories in the North of Spain for pulping, for as little as 10 cents a kilo.

The pulp is exported and made into marmalade products. This practice undermines the native growers and compromises the price they get for their oranges. Many tourists in Seville are unaware of the difference between the organic oranges and the street oranges. 


Life for Citrus

There are an estimated 40,000 orange trees in Seville. In 2020, the European Commission co-financed with partners from Spain, France and Italy a three year research programme to protect citrus fruits from Yellow Dragon disease in the city and elsewhere in the Mediterranean.

It’s a global problem, that also affects Africa, Asia North America and Brazil.  In citrus fruit, the leaves become yellow, the fruit fails to reach full size, and the flavour is weakened. The psylla fly, native to Africa and Asia carries the bacteria on its abdomen. Once infected, a tree can die off within 5 years. The aim of the EU programme was to find sustainable measures to prevent the bacteria from spreading, for example encouraging the introduction of wildlife to prey on the insects that spread the disease, installing insect hotels and nest boxes to encourage long term intervention. When I visited an organic citrus farm in 2023 they had an insect hotel.The success of these kinds of programmes will be integral to the long term future of citrus.


Education and Training 

Just as the fate of Seville oranges has evolved with the centuries, so has the way that marmalade making has been honed, taught and practiced. Sadly today, traditional marmalade making is under threat, for a number of reasons.

 Although there were recipes for preserves in Mrs Beeton’s book in1861, the yields ie the number of jars was not listed. Without this guidance, sweet preserves like marmalade would either ferment or be over-boiled to a firm consistency. Studies at the agricultural research station in Long Ashton, Bristol in the 1920’s led to the development of recipes with a balance of fruit, sugar, acid and pectin. Further research examined the shelf-life of sweet preserves. This suggested the sugar content ie the content in the jar, not the starting percentage should be 60-65%. This percentage is the one listed in our Jam and Similar Products regulations, 2003. The scientists also published a series of recipe booklets. One was for marmalade. The booklets formed the basis of a government publication, Home Preservation of Fruit and Vegetables, considered a bible by those of us who are passionate about preserving. By 1932, members of the Women’s Institute were attending courses in preserving and judging preserves organised by staff from Long Ashton. In recent years , before its closure, courses were held at Denman College.

When Long Ashton closed in 1977, the National Federation of Women’s Institutes incorporated their courses into Home Economics and Judges Certificates. During the mid to late 1990’s when I trained to be a preserves judge, I took part in rigorous courses of instruction in making and judging preserves. This was followed by two years of practical judging, shadowing judges and judging as a trainee. 

The preservation education I received from the Women’s Institute in the 1990’s transformed the way I made marmalade and other preserves. The quality of the teaching was exceptional.

The number of women seeking education in Home Economics declined from 2000 onwards, around the time the National Federation of Women’s Institutes decided to move away from their Jam and Jerusalem strap line to attract younger members and the courses were discontinued. By 2012 there was a shortage of WI Cookery and Preserves judges. That prompted the re introduction of courses. During the years of COVID restrictions, online teaching was introduced. I know from my own experiences of teaching and learning online it is different to face to face. There is nothing quite like “ standing next to Nellie.”

Following a consultation of Federations and Judges in 2023 the NFWI Board at its March 2024 meeting agreed to discontinue the LLA ( Laser Learning Awards) accredited Judges training forthwith. It seems the gold standard of judging has finally been buried by the organisation who created it.


Prior to this century, there was a tradition of passing culinary knowledge down through the generations. One of my earliest memories was watching my mother make jam. In my thirties, I had a Good Housekeeping book and Delia Smith had just started to write recipes for marmalade and other preserves. I was at home with a young family and I had the luxury of time to develop my passion for preserves. Today, my daughters are in full time employment and my youngest daughter once said to me that she might think about making marmalade when she retired.

Since 2000 with the increase in broadband in our homes, the number of marmalade recipes online has grown exponentially. Today, if you are new to marmalade, the instinctive place to start would be with an online search for recipes, preferably one that can be made quickly, perhaps to tie in with a desire for instant gratification. You will be overwhelmed by the choice of recipes.

Many are unbalanced in their ratios of fruit to sugar. For example, 1kg Seville oranges : 1kg sugar. This ratio attempts to mimic the one commonly used for jam and to reduce the sugar in the marmalade. When I tested it I ended up with a pan full of chewy peel and virtually no jelly. As Sevilles are stuffed full of pectin, they will ‘set’ a higher ratio of sugar and their natural bitterness needs sugar to give a balanced flavour. Sugar is espoused as an ingredient to be avoided. Indeed, too much sugar is not healthy, however it would seem strange to eat an entire jar of marmalade at one sitting! Changing the ratio by however much interferes with the set, colour and consistency. Less sugar means a prolonged boil to a set and the loss of flavour.



In print food magazines often promote marmalade in January and February adding to the collection of recipes online. Readers might try a recipe and think it’s good ( because of their belief in the authority of the publication) or it’s a failure and they decide marmalade making is not for them. In 2023 House and Garden online featured a recipe using jam sugar and a twenty minute boil to a set.

The lack of sound guidance presents a minefield to those looking to learn, which is understandably discouraging. However there is solid teaching and material out there, if you know where to find it. The best sources are books, not the Internet. Preferably books with traditional recipes. One of the reasons why I wrote my book, First Preserves was because I wanted to publish the book I wanted to read in my 30’s.



In 2008 I entered and won the Seville orange Marmalade category and crowned the overall homemade winner of the Marmalade Awards. It was a watershed moment for me as it kick started my book First Preserves, ebooks about preserves and baking and subsequent teaching at Marlborough Summer School and at cookery schools, including Denman College.


Since 2008 I have been fortunate to teach or mentor a number of preservers who have scooped top awards. In 2023 at the Marmalade Awards, a double gold winner in the Artisan category for a Seville and Ginger Marmalade and the winner of the Campanologist’s category with a Seville and Bells Whisky Marmalade. They are two of my best marmalade friends. One of the competition’s aims is to “set an international standard for making marmalade globally.” An admirable aim except the standard takes account of the myriad methods and ingredients used in marmalade from a wide range of countries. Some reduce the sugar and ingredients such as apple, passion fruit, and blueberries have featured in some of the top awards, when the definition of what is marmalade is clearly regulated as being citrus fruit.



When I first became a judge I relished the opportunity to evaluate preserves in village shows and county competitions. These days, the entries are down and the standard I was taught has almost disappeared, the result of many competitors lack of knowledge and skill. Many show committees do not have the budget or they are reluctant to book a qualified judge for their competitions. Without useful feedback to competitors, improvements cannot be made, thereby further reducing the average quality of marmalade and other preserves.

Making marmalade is a mindful activity, you can lose yourself as you rhythmically slice peel or watch a rolling boil. It’s also a social activity. Some of my best marmalade memories have involved family and friends making marmalade together. I enjoy teaching others how to make it and the reaction when they taste real marmalade for the first time, the satisfaction I get from following the success of preservers in competitions I have taught. Finally, it’s a desire to uphold a British tradition, albeit one in danger of being lost that never ceases to inspire me.


The Future!  

Organic Seville oranges could be heading for extinction in the next century, if the number of farms continue to disappear, climate change impacts the harvests and disease decimates the trees. Fewer home cooks and artisan producers are looking for courses in preserves. A DIY marmalade making culture, supported by online recipes is commonplace, which means variable standards. In some competitions there is an increase in prize winning  marmalade made with scant regard for traditional methods and recipes. The education and training championed by the Women’s Institute in the 1930’s is a shadow of its former self. It falls to a diminishing number of expert tutors and judges to do what we can to keep the tradition of making marmalade alive. 

Vivien Lloyd April 2024