An Embarrassment of Marmalades

One of a miscellany of short observations from a trip to Scotland.

It’s Elizabeth Barrett Browning meets Count von Count from Sesame Street:

How do I love thee, Scotland? Let me count the ways.

One, two, three: three kinds of marmalade. Ha, ha, ha.

Our hotel offers a ‘complete Scottish breakfast’, albeit with instant (Oh, the horror!) oatmeal. Buffet style means that the toast is cold: I’m thinking they sell more sweet buns and croissants. But it is the selection of marmalades that catches my attention and not just because the nasty little packets are lined up in neat rows on a tray rather than jumbled into a bowl or stacked in a purpose-designed wire basket. You know the packets I mean: assuming you can get into the damn things, they generate more packaging waste than jam.

Suddenly, I am in flashback mode. The time: 1991. The place: the pathetically underused Mirabelle Airport Hotel. I am watching in disbelief as a then 65-year-old colleague shamelessly charms our extremely underworked and, therefore, seriously grumpy waitress. Fighting with one of those devilish packets — likely for butter, he not being one for sweets — he finally capitulates and hands it to her without a word, but with much batting of eyelashes. And this dour woman — who has had not one friendly or even civil word for us all week — takes it, opens it, and hands it back without a word, but with a shy grin. How dangerous he must have been in his prime!

But that’s another story: back to the marmalade.

In this country defined by its frugality, I am overwhelmed by the generosity of marmalade choices. It is an exercise in sheer exuberance as well as permutations: orange, lemon, mixed citrus; all with or without peel. Ha, ha, ha.

Returning to my seat, clutching my selections, I stop by a table filled with my American co-travellers.

Look, three kinds of marmalade!

They seem unimpressed.

Travelling for business and for pleasure in the US of A has introduced me to the wonders of what competition can do for the nominally free breakfast even at unremarkable hotels — not just the entirely expected spread of fruit, juices, cold cereals, and sticky buns and muffins, but also chafing dishes full of sausages and pseudo-eggs, crockpots full of cooked oatmeal, and equipment for making your very own waffle and for toasting your very own bread, English muffin or bagel. The condiment jars are filled to overflowing with single-serving packets of syrup, peanut butter, cream cheese, and assorted jams and jellies. Yet in this land defined by its plenty, there is often nary a hint of marmalade. Strawberry jam? Certainly. Grape jelly? Natch. Marmalade? Not so much.

As I dig happily and stickily into my cold toast and marmalades, I reflect that the Americans are more likely lamenting the completely inexplicable lack of Tabasco┬« on the table. But that’s another story. Me, I’m just savouring the moment.

Ha, ha, ha.

Note: Completely serendipitously, the New York Times has a spread on marmalade in today’s (Sunday, 14 October 2012) edition, written by Elizabeth Field, who wrote her Master’s in Gastronomy thesis on…(wait for it!)… marmalade!


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6 Responses to An Embarrassment of Marmalades

  1. Marion says:

    A spread on marmalade?

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Marion – Sorry…I couldn’t resist. Or desist.

      • Isabel Gibson says:

        And now we hear from a bagpipe-playing reader just catching up on the haggis piece (now regrettably closed to comments).…Ahhh Isabel – you are just beginning to experience the gastronomic excitement of Scotland (emphasis on gas). Haggis is for the newly initiated – mild, tolerable with alcoholic support and actually enjoyable after a few dozen frontal attacks. Once exposed though, no turning back.

        Before long, you will be moving up to SULA (pronounced “goo-gaa” – colloquial Hebridean gaelic – don’t ask…). This is the immature gannet about the size of a small chicken, plucked from the cliffs on the northern islands just before flying feathers arrive. It is then gutted, downy feathers singed over an open wood/peat fire, dried, covered in salt and stacked on the top of the cliff until the wind and stormy seas allow the boat to return.

        Preparation – soak in water for several hours, drain then boil to perfection. Serve with potatoes in jacket, “neeps” (aka turnips), quartered carrots and onions. The goo-ga totally overwhelms the vegetables, so they are there only as a pale reminder of colour.
        Served – taken right out of the pot – (WWI gas mask recommended) on a flat plate with high ridges. The high ridges are relevant – the gannet is fed on a 100% diet of small very, very oily fish. I believe some of the original Cirque du Soleil stunts were mimics of someone taking a “goo-gaa” from pot to table with an entirely flat plate. Biiiiggg mistake! On the kitchen floor, it seems to come back to life as a rugby ball complete with competitors, male and female, on equal footing diving to rescue the delicacy. Hand lotion is not required for weeks after such an experience.
        Eating – best to ignore the appearance of a boiled well-used tweed boot sock. The desert camel has the ability to close its nostrils completely. This would be entirely useful in the absence of a strong clothes peg. Before digging in, make sure you have your running shoes near by and a mental map of the nearest toilet. In the human digestive system, this delicacy moves quickly – really, really quickly in my experience. Best enjoyed with lots of potatoes to soak up the intense Omega 3 flood. Finish with a lot of dairy to counteract the need for running shoes. Locals swear by a “healthy dram” to refresh the mental map memorized earlier and aid in navigation.

        • Isabel Gibson says:

          Derek – OK, this has just confirmed my opinion of Scottish cuisine…Good thing they have fabulous scenery!

  2. Alison says:

    Just caught up with your October posts – where has the time gone this month?? I enjoy hearing about your trip – makes up for my not travelling afar! I applaud your finding the Airporter bus – I am starting to realize that finding the baggage carousel can be challenging – let alone the exit doors to the bus! I think I’d better get travelling, because it is not getting any easier as I get older! ( at least not the airport part!)

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Alison – Nope, that’s true for sure – new stuff doesn’t get any easier! All the more reason to do as many things now as we can, to cut the ‘newness’ factor. Having been there, I’d go again in a heartbeat, and with a whole whack more confidence in my ability to navigate locally.

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