We live in a turn-of-the-century apartment building with a typical Berlin courtyard. The front of the building, called the Vorderhaus (front house) in German, faces the street. In the building’s foyer, there is a set of stairs and a wood-paneled elevator, but the back of the foyer also opens up to the courtyard, where there are two more entryways to the left and right side of our building, also known as the Hinterhaus or Gartenhaus (back house or garden house).
Our courtyard is split into four quarters that belong, respectively, to the four ground floor apartments. Three of the four quarters are tended to, with varying degrees of care, by their owners or tenants. One boasts a lush froth of bamboo, a neat row of shrubs that divide it from the foot path, and a pathetic magnolia tree, planted there in a burst of optimism several years ago. Another one has raised beds with herbs, a perky Japanese maple, a grill and a cozy seating arrangement for warmer months. The third quarter has nothing but grass, or at different points during the year, the potential for grass. The fourth quarter is abandoned.
It is this abandoned quarter that my children have claimed. They run feral in the abandoned dirt. They dig into it with relish, creating river beds, army camps, entire worlds in the muck. The few times I’ve worked in the garden, planting bulbs, I’ve struck broken glass, crumbling mortar. I’m sure there’s debris from World War II lurking further beneath.
To be sure, I have had fantasies about tending this patch lovingly, about learning to love gardening and worms and dirt, being one with the seasons, growing in character as my garden flourishes. These fantasies go nowhere. I have neither the time nor the inclination, and bugs and worms, pulsating against the mealy earth, repulse me. It’s not the first time the fantasy of who I’d like to be has run up against the reality of who I am.
The garden quarter is an eyesore and I am more than slightly mortified by our participation in its demise. But we are rule-following apartment dwellers and we are living through a pandemic and it is the only private piece of nature available to our young children that they can run around in without my presence. So I let them go and while I worry what the neighbors think, this also allows me to sit upstairs and concentrate without interruption for the first time in days, and sometimes I give myself permission to believe that this alone justifies it.
Perhaps I’ll come to gardening late in life. Perhaps it will forever remain mystifying and remote. In the meantime, I’ve become a master at a different kind of domestic sport: bitter orange marmalade. For almost ten years now, the experience of breaking down kilos of otherwise inedible fruit has been the highlight of my winter domesticity. Jam-making is somewhat in my blood, as my mother has been making her own jams—from the fruit plucked from the trees of our house in Italy: sour cherry, peach, plum, fig—since I was a child. But I came to my love of bitter orange, or Seville orange, marmalade as an adult.
To my mind, there is no better preserve made at home. For there are many elements to bitter orange marmalade that can affect one’s love for it, including the level of sweetness, the thickness of the peel and the set of the jelly. All of these elements can be controlled in your own kitchen, allowing for the production of a marmalade that is precisely to your liking and that will continue to astonish you months, if not years, after making it.
Bitter orange marmalade is a preserve that requires more time and effort than any other, this is true. To start, it may not be easy for you to source Seville oranges. I am lucky that they’re available at some Berlin green markets in January and early February, and that I am the beneficiary, through a friend, of a connection to a certain importer named—wait for it—Herr Amore, who drives bitter oranges up from Sicily to his friends in Berlin each year.
Then there is the process of taming the bitter, astringent bite of the raw fruit. The oranges must be boiled into submission to start, softening the peel and creating a broth that is the foundation of what will become the silky jelly you’ll spread on your toast. Next comes the dissection of the fruit, the painstaking breaking down of the thick, nubby peel. Finally comes the actual jam-making, in which eye-popping amounts of sugar are added to the fragrant broth and slivered peel, and cooked until the desired set consistency is achieved.
If this all sounds like more work than it’s worth, let me be your evangelist: THIS MARMALADE IS WORTH IT. After all, I am one of the laziest cooks alive. If there’s a shortcut, I’ll take it. If I can find it in a store, I’ll buy it. But not only does nothing commercially made come close to the brightness and flavor of homemade Seville orange marmalade, but there is a certain Zen flow to the process of making the marmalade that I have come to cherish. Even my family respects the marmalade zone, giving me a wide berth while I’m elbow deep in granulated sugar and hair-thin shreds of orange peel, the kitchen windows fogged up with orange-scented air. Perhaps this is part of its appeal to me. There is little else I do in the kitchen that is given such reverence. Hugo, who has loved bitter orange marmalade since before he could speak, certainly appreciates the pantry full of gleaming jars of it.
A few years ago, I learned the technique of boiling the fruit whole before adding oven-warmed sugar, which speeds up the cooking process, giving the finished product a brighter, fresher flavor. It also reduces some of the fussiness of a traditional marmalade recipe, since you simply scoop out the cooked, pectin-rich flesh and seeds from the boiled oranges, and then sliver the tender peel as thinly or thickly as you like.
My recipe is a little lower in sugar than traditional marmalade, because I like the bitterness so much, and because I find that the usual ratio of 1 part bitter orange to 2 parts sugar unnecessarily sweet. The recipe below is large enough that I cook it in two batches. The past several years, I’ve added slivered vanilla beans to the second batch, which I highly recommend. The vanilla gives a voluptuous rounded flavor to the marmalade, and the black seeds suspended in the orange jelly are chic as hell.
The recipe below is rather large and must be made in two steps. I figure that I’m making the effort anyway, and I’d like to make enough jars to gift as well as having enough for our own consumption throughout the year, so I might as well process two whole kilos at once. But you can, of course, halve the recipe. Just don’t blame me if you go looking for a jar in your pantry come autumn, and find that there are none left.
Finally, a note on safety, because questions from American readers inevitably arise: You do not need to process these jars in a water bath. The process detailed below, and the high sugar content, will produce jars of marmalade that are safe to store for a year or more.
Seville Orange Marmalade
Makes about 12 jars
This recipe is easily halved.
To make bitter orange vanilla marmalade, add fresh vanilla beans, split lengthwise, or spent vanilla beans from a bottle of homemade vanilla extract. I use two fresh or four spent for a half batch of marmalade. Add the vanilla beans at the beginning of Step 4, then remove and discard before jarring.
I don’t specify jar size, because I use a mix of jar sizes, between five and eight ounces. The recipe below usually fills between 10 and 13 of these jars.
2 kilos (4.4 pounds) bitter (Seville) oranges
3 kilos (6.5 pounds) sugar
4 lemons, juiced
Put the whole oranges in a very large pot and cover with 3 liters/12 cups water. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer very gently for 2 hours.
Preheat the oven to 340 F/170 C. Pour half the sugar onto a baking sheet and place in the oven. Using tongs, pluck the oranges out of the pot and place them on a cutting board to cool. Leave the cooking liquid in the pot.
When the oranges are cool enough to handle, cut them in half. Scoop out the pith and seeds, adding it to the reserved cooking liquid along with the lemon juice. Bring the liquid to a boil and let cook for 6 minutes, then pour this mixture through a fine-meshed sieve set over a large bowl. Using a wooden spoon, press the pulp through the sieve, periodically scraping the gel off the other side and adding it to the bowl. This is what gives the marmalade its set. Discard the remaining, squeezed-out pulp.
Pour half of the pectin-rich liquid back into the pot. Using a sharp paring knife, cut the peel of the scooped-out oranges into shreds of your liking (I do a mix of hair-thin and slightly thicker). Add half the peel to the liquid in the pot with the warm sugar from the oven. Stir over a low heat until all of the sugar has dissolved, about 10 minutes, then bring to a boil and cook briskly for 15-25 minutes, until the setting point has been reached.
Take the pot off the heat, then ladle the marmalade into sterilized jars, taking care not to burn yourself. Fill the jars until just under the brim. Wipe the rims, screw the caps on tightly and immediately invert the jars. As the marmalade cools, the inversion helps create a vacuum seal. Repeat with the remaining sugar, peel and liquid for the second batch, warming the other half of the sugar first.
Let the jars cool completely before turning right side up (and washing off any stickiness, if necessary). Label and store. Unopened, the marmalade will last for at least a year. Once opened, store in the refrigerator.