Field Notes: Victory is Sweet at Mad for Marmalade, Crazy for Citrus!
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Field Notes: Victory is Sweet at Mad for Marmalade, Crazy for Citrus!

For some enthusiasts, marmalade is more than their jam.

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Three elderly women huddle in a room to the back of Fort York’s Blue Barracks on Saturday afternoon taking stock of the entries lining two rows of tables.

A mason jar of honey-hued marmalade brimming to the lid catches the attention of one. “No head room,” she says, pointing out the offending fruit preserve.

Close by, a bespectacled woman remarks to her companion, “That’s true, it is an odd texture.”

Clearly, the margin of error at the “Mad for Marmalade, Crazy for Citrus!” marmalade competition is rind thin.

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For the past nine years, the Culinary Historians of Canada has run this artisanal test of technique and creativity as part of its annual winter citrus-themed festival.

“This is the big one every year,” says Samantha George, who handles media relations for the group, noting it hosts numerous talks throughout the year.

On Saturday morning, a crowd of about 150 attendees filter into the Spartan encampment to take part in festivities that also include workshops, a citrus-infused lunch, and lectures.

The audience is predominantly female, and despite the popularity of canning among millennials the average age in the room is near retirement.

Thirty-year-old Salwa Qadir is definitely one of the youngest on hand. Why is she here?

“To keep my mother company,” she says. “It’s actually really fun, like, I didn’t expect it to be entertaining,” Qadir admits.

Fathiya Abdulah, Qadir’s mother, has entered a sour-dough marmalade breakfast roll in the Baking With Marmalade category.

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The competition also draws sweet marmalades and bitter ones. Some contestants favour pure Seville orange marmalades—the king of marmalades, Abdulah insists—while others get creative, as in the case of a lemon, fig, and lavender submission.

There are spiked marmalades, too, like the scotch-injected entry that ultimately took home first prize in the citrus category, and Mike Layton’s (Ward 19, Trinity-Spadina) grapefruit Campari marmalade that did not.

“Too much alcohol—overwhelming,” reads Layton’s scorecard, which reveals a disappointing score of seven out of 28. “Very runny.”

There are many ways for competitors like Layton to go astray. Yvonne Tremblay, who judged the pure Seville category, which limits entrants to using lemon, bitter oranges, and sugar, explains her judging process.

“First we looked at the different texture and the colour,” says Tremblay, author of such books as Prizewinning Preserves. “You can kind of tell by the colour. If it’s too dark, then it’s probably been overcooked a bit.”

The peel is also scrutinized, as is the consistency. “We take a spoon and we stir it a little,” she says. Don’t forget the proportion of jelly to rind.

Over in the servants’ kitchen earlier that afternoon, a sherbet workshop takes place. Fresh orange rinds boil over an open fire, and the squat brick building’s cooking quarters smells like a giant mug of Neo Citran.

It turns out sherbet, at least traditionally speaking, is quite different from what you find in the frozen aisle of a grocery store: it’s a centuries-old syrup-based beverage served cold.

Alongside Seville-orange-based drinks favoured by Anglos, samples of a rosewater-lime concoction popular in the Middle East are handed out, as Mad for Marmalade, Crazy for Citrus! has a Persian theme this year.

Bridget Wranich, co-founder of the Culinary Historians of Canada, takes a sip, and considers the recipe. “I’m thinking gin would be good in this,” she says, champagne flute in hand.

Photos by Josh Sherman