One freezing January day the greengrocer delivers a large box of Spanish Seville oranges for my O Level Marmalade lesson.
We’ve stripped the labels from empty jam jars and I’ve put a collection of the black haired gollies from pots of Robertson’s Golden Shred into my desk drawer.
This is the first outing for the giant aluminium preserving pans stacked on the top shelf of the food larder and I’ve dusted them and removed dead spiders and flies.
‘We’ll work in groups and share out the marmalade when it is made.’
Clever, stroppy, foldy arms Carol looms towards me.
‘I ain’t sharing me cooking with no-one. How will I get a mark if we share! I ain’t sharing.’
Carol has been ‘placed’ in my O level group with Vicky as no other teacher wants them.
The class despairs at their constant outbursts. They’d love the pair to toddle off to smoke and drink Maxwell House coffee in the station cafe.
‘OK Carol – you and Vicky make marmalade on your own. Now all of you, slice the orange peel really thinly like this.’
I demonstrate how to cut tiny slivers of peel, leaving the bitter pith behind.
‘Put the pith, pips and orange fruit in these pieces of muslin, tie up with string and simmer with the orange juice and water.’
A bolt of muslin is stacked on the top larder shelf ready for wrapping Christmas puddings and straining the curds from the whey to make cheese. And today my London teenagers will be tying tiny bags for pips and pith to boil in a pan.
Carol is on the moan again.
‘I don’t want no pips or peel in mine. We don’t eat them things.’
‘Carol, the pips and pith contain pectin which helps the marmalade to set, otherwise it’s runny like syrup. The peel is lovely on buttered toast.’
She doesn’t care. She and Vicky will strut out of the room soon, off to meet the local smokers who lurk outside the school gates.
We settle into the gentle rhythm of slicing the peel which bursts with zesty fragrance. A warm, pungent calm descends.
This lesson is going well until Janice yells, runs to the rubbish bin and spits out a large lump of orange flesh.
‘Urrggh Miss, this orange is vile. Sour as anything. It’s off. Take ‘em back to the shop.’
‘Class, put down your knives and let me explain.’
The quiet hush has been disrupted again.
‘Seville oranges are bitter and sour. You don’t eat them. You cook them with sugar. The first marmalade was made in a factory in Dundee – they got a delivery of sour Seville oranges by mistake and they couldn’t use them so they invented a new recipe – Dundee Marmalade. Now let’s get on.’
I’m like a smart arse from Radio 4s Brain of Britain, only with a Midland accent.
Steam blurrs the classroom windows as we simmer the orangey juice then tip in vast quantities of Tate and Lyle sugar. Ah Bisto! The room smells delicious.
‘Please don’t lick your spoons class or taste!’
Marmalade may smell nice but it’s reaching tongue scorching temperatures.
I rotate from pan to pan sticking the jam thermometer into the bubbling mixtures. Sylvia, my magical auxiliary helper, follows with a cold plate for the wrinkle test.
‘If a spoon of your marmalade wrinkles on this plate, it’s setting!’
They look at me bewildered. Wrinkle? Why does it need to wrinkle?
We’re ready. Hot jam jars come out of the oven and are filled with scalding, golden liquid. Quick now. Cover and seal it from germs with a circle of greaseproof paper and a crackly cellophane top tied with string.
The room glows orange – floaty slivers of finely cut peel dancing in the gold jelly of our east London marmalade.
Two pots are different. Carol and Vicky have abandoned their sugary, orangey liquid which will probably never set and never deserve the name marmalade. But they gone down the cafe.