It started with a Turkish glass earring, a tiny lemon with an equally tiny leaf at the top of it, dangling from Sivan’s ear. Sivan is an artist and artisan weaver but during her studies worked at an ice-cream shop in our neighbourhood. One day we stopped by for a scoop, because the lemon-curd ripple was made with the fruit from our tree. The serendipitous piece of jewellery got us chatting, and a friendship began to blossom.
When we extended the offer of lemons to Sivan, she reciprocated by gifting us a jar of her lemon marmalade. We were taken with the firm set and candied peel, since the marmalade we make has a set that’s on the softer side. We also peel and julienne the zest to leave only a bright citrus tang, so I was intrigued by how hers tempered the bitterness of our pithy Cape Rough Skins.
This year Sivan came over to make marmalade, sharing what she’d learned from her grandmother, Dorothea. It was a two-day process, fuelled by braided Italian lemon biscuits and cups of tea from a pot in a knitted cosy, the little yellow earring by our side, as if a blessing from her other grandmother, Harriet, who gave it to her.
We started at source: the lemon tree. Armed with my Opa’s picker, its muslin bag attached to catch the bounty, I aimed high. Sivan took care of the low-hanging fruit. As I tugged on the branches, rustling the leaves and at times bringing down an avalanche of lemons, I became aware of how Sivan looked for just the right ripeness, before carefully turning and plucking each lemon off individually.
The fragrance released in the picking can’t help but switch your senses to high alert. As we washed the lemons our hands felt sticky, bathed in the aromatic oils released from their skins: a baptism of sorts. And as we sat at the kitchen table, focussed on the precise and careful work of slicing evenly and picking out every pip, we occasionally fell into silence.
The next day we resumed, first cooking the fruit until tender and then with sugar until the slices resembled Sivan’s description of ‘slivers of jewels’. We stirred patiently, skimming foam, and watched closely as the viscosity and colour changed from lemon water to golden jam. The lemon-scented steam rising from the pots seemed to sanctify us and the kitchen, which by now was fondly referred to as The Abbey: a place of quiet companionship.
Dorothea’s marmalade is far more method than recipe and the know-how lies in the doing. You’re invited to step up and pay close attention to what is happening as you make it, and you’re also welcome to use oranges or grapefruits instead. Perhaps in our moments of silence we were trying to hear what is not spoken, the kind of understanding that often presents as a feeling.
We were building to the final test in trusting our instincts: when was it ready to pour into jars? After tilting the ice-cold plate and contemplating how the pool of citrus confiture congealed, we started bottling. I screwed on the lids wishing on a lemon earring. Only once those jars were cool, would we know whether we’d made the right call.
Our hopes lay in pectin: the thing that makes jam set. It occurs in fruit at varying levels and cutting and boiling brings it out of the cell walls. The cooking and the sugar encourage pectin chains to gather closer together, but it is acidity that ensures they bond. Lemons are ideal candidates for marmalade because they are high in both pectin (for set) and acid (to hold the set).
So everything you need is in the lemon: the right amount of pectin, the right level of acidity. Like knowing exactly when to seize the opportunities life might be offering you, what it essentially comes down to is knowing when to pick a lemon.
The lemons need to be just ripe or ever so slightly underripe. And after the disappointment of finding a fresh haul of lemons wearing a powdery, sage-green coat (aka mould) after just a day or two, or making a marmalade that never quite set, we know to pay attention in the lead up to the winter solstice. Ignore their knobbly skin edging closer to gold, and peak pectin will pass.
Making marmalade is not only a matter of taking time but getting the timing right. The question was, had we? The sourdough crust crackled as I cut into it. A gleaming mound of marmalade slid off the spoon and held its shape on a buttered slice of bread, we beamed with exhilaration and clinked vintage schnapps glasses, toasting with tasters of Cape lemon gin (distilled from the Rough Skins).
Savouring the first bite, all deliciousness amplified by both the achievement and long-awaited reward, I found myself saying: ‘What more do you need?’
‘Nothing at all,’ said Sivan. And that is precisely the point.
© How to Cook without Recipes 2022 | words Nikki Werner | photographs & video Brandon de Kock