Do men make better marmalade? The judges and members of the public attending Shaftesbury Arts Centre’s Marma-Fest fundraiser thought so! ThisIsAlfred’s Keri Jones joined the tasters, judges and winners to find out how to master the art of marmalade making.
Could you eat 57 teaspoons of marmalade in two hours? Even Paddington Bear might feel queasy at the prospect. But that’s what the Marma-Fest judges had to do. Fleur-de-Lys proprietor and chef David Griffin-Shepherd, Truckle Truck owner Carolyn Hopkins and the High Street Bakery’s Kamil Gradzewicz sampled dozens of marmalades entered into six categories. Most were very good.
“It’s been a really different experience to taste so many varieties of a single product,” said Carolyn, who joked that she didn’t want to see any more fruit preserve for at least six months. She didn’t want to estimate how much she had eaten either. “Certainly more than enough for now,” she smiled.
Upstairs in the Arts Centre, the clipboard-clutching trio was methodically moving down a long table laden with jars of different shapes and sizes, clustered together according to the entry category. They tasted, debated and then scored each entry on a scale of 1 to 5. “Overall, there was a very high quality of marmalades,” said David.
Carolyn added, “The range has been absolutely fantastic. There have been different fruits used and interesting flavours being added to them. Some people have been doing marmalade for a long time, some people are just giving it a shot and I hope they carry on.”
I left the judges and headed downstairs. The foyer was packed with people and had been transformed into a temporary brunch bar. An industrial-looking toaster positioned on a ledge was being well used. You could say that this was a pop-up café.
Rosie King came up with the Marma-Fest concept. “There’s a place in Cumbria who do it and when I saw it, they had an absolute altar of marmalade. It was a three-day event. I thought, yeah, that sounds fun. Let’s try it.”
Rosie and her team were rushed off their feet. “We must have done 100 toasts and marmalades I think.” Ironically, she had not had time to sample the goods herself. “I just had a banana a few hours ago,” she confided.
Outside on Bell Street, Anne Louise Richards and Peter Morris were drumming up more trade for Rosie and her colleagues. The pair were dressed in flamboyant 17th-century clothing, trying not to lose their wigs in the wind. “I’m King Charles II and this is my lovely mistress, Nell Gwynne,” said Peter.
“Good afternoon sir, or good morning, I should say,” said Anne Louise, in character as Nell. “I’m sorry the time travel just really throws you off,” she laughed. “Did you have oranges in your day?” I asked. “Yes I was an orange seller and they were the best in the kingdom. King Charles liked a pair of my oranges from time to time as well.” More laughter.
I asked the pair what reaction they had as they wandered around in their costumes, carrying a basket of oranges. “Quite a lot of double takes,” she replied.
On Friday night and early on Saturday morning, Arts Centre volunteers had decorated the building in an orange theme. The foyer had been ‘tangoed’. Table decorations of orange flowers embedded in hollowed-out oranges complemented the clusters of orange balloons. It created a fun theme, but the event was all about the tasting. There were many experienced marmalade makers present so this was a potentially tough crowd to please.
Vivian Rudd has managed the Town Hall Thursday markets and she understands what people want from marmalade. “The customers are very specific. Some people like very thin shredded bits of rind and other people like it chunky and dark. I make a low sugar one, which is quite popular for people who probably shouldn’t be eating marmalade anyway,” she said.
Viv came along to help the fundraiser. “I want to support the Arts Centre.” Her partner Mike Botterill was happily tucking in to toast, heavily spread with marmalade. “This is just right,” he beamed.
Another expert marmalade maker was standing just twenty feet away from Mike and Viv. Customers were queuing to buy Arts Centre chairman Jenny Parker’s homemade marmalade, which she has been making as a fundraiser for the charity. “I started selling it in the Arts Centre a couple of years ago. I used to have it on sale in the little larder shop in Swan’s Yards. I have a lot of customers who come for it.”
Jenny broke off from our chat to serve one of her regulars, John Burrough. “I guess we get through at least a jar a week,” John said, before recommending Jenny’s ‘Seriously Chunky’ variety.
Then at 11.30am, town crier Cliff Skey rung his bell. The foyer fell silent as head-judge David headed downstairs to deliver the judges’ verdict. “It’s been a wonderful competition. We had a plethora of marmalade to taste,” David said, adding that the judges had been greatly impressed by the overall winner’s ‘great balance of flavours’.
“There’s good colour and good clarity through it. A nice even cut of fruit,'” said David. “And it’s tricky to get that balance right between the sweetness and the tartness of the fruit,” added Carolyn.
So it’s official. Bell Street resident Andy Hollingshead makes Shaftesbury’s best marmalade. His had gained the top mark in the lemon or lime category. And after the applause died down, Andy shared a shock revelation. “This is only the second jar of marmalade I’ve made. I’m actually delighted to win this,” he said.
“I think it comes down to ingredients,” added Andy. “I was very lucky that I happened to be in the south of France last week, where the lemon season has just come into crop. I got beautiful, huge lemons from the market and bought them home to make this marmalade. It’s a really enjoyable thing to do, really relaxing.” Andy modestly said that believed that there were better marmalade makers in the town.
If you want to replicate his success, he recommends the River Cottage Jam and Jelly Recipe book. “I used the recipe for Seville orange marmalade. I just used lemons and I didn’t use just white sugar. I used three-quarters golden and about a quarter Demerara.” The judges also praised Andy’s presentation. His marmalade jar label featured a vintage picture of Bell Street.
Resident Valentine Davies sampled Andy’s winning entry and was also full of praise. “I can’t say that I am an aficionado on marmalade but that is simply delicious because it’s different. It’s got a mixture of tastes in it. It’s quite tangy.”
The ‘variety’ category encouraged creativity and even featured marmalade made from kumquats. Sandy Roberts won the group with her marmalade consisting of bacon, onions, garlic, chilli, coffee, brown sugar, malt vinegar and maple syrup.
“It was really unusual with a really interesting flavour. All the elements can really come through nicely,” said Carolyn. “It is intensely savoury which is quite different and it had a good, firm, meaty texture.” So did the cheesemonger think that it would pair well with cheese? “It probably would actually but there is a little bit of chilli in there, which is a tricky one with cheese.”
The ‘best marmalade with alcohol’ award went to Elaine Lofthouse. Unity Sparrow won the ‘best grapefruit marmalade’ prize. Rose Ouston’s ‘thick marmalade’ was best in that group. And the judges reckoned that Tim Jackson made the ‘best thin marmalade’.
During the morning, the public was also given a chance to taste and rate the entries. Another man, Richard Hayes, was declared winner according to the public voting. There’s clearly gender balance in marmalade making.
“Someone just happened to mention that this was on so I thought I’d chuck a couple of jars in,” Richard said modestly. “I major on chilli marmalade, so I grow my own hot chillies and I’m just ratcheting it up. I think I’ve reached a level where you just don’t need the fire brigade,” smiled Richard.
Marma-Fest will have raised cash for the Arts Centre’s plans to add storage, workshop, rehearsal and meeting spaces. “If we want to do the whole job, we need a million pounds but we are breaking it into smaller bits at the moment and we’re starting work in July to do the first part of the building. Next is the stage and we need between £200,000 and £300,000 for that,” said Jenny Parker.
Rosie was pleased that the event also encouraged new faces into the Arts Centre. “It has brought in a lot of people that we don’t normally see, which is just tremendous,” she said.
Chairman of judges David was excited by the level of interest and would like to see the event return. “To get so many entrants for the first one is absolutely fantastic. I would love to see this go on as an annual event. It could grow and grow. We might have our very own Great Marma-Fest here in Shaftesbury.”
And spurred on by Saturday’s success, Rosie promises a bigger, better Marma-Fest in 2020. “I have booked the slot already,” she said. “I will try and involve the Chamber of Commerce. It would be rather nice if everyone had a window display. Shaftesbury could become a marmalade town, just like the snowdrops. It would be really good.”