The United Kingdom is a nation defined by food. From the cure-all cup of tea to our breakfast staple, marmalade on toast. But, are these quintessentially British food and drinks hiding their heritage? And what happens when you throw their ingredients into the mix?
Take marmalade and toast, for example. Where do the oranges in our marmalade come from? What about the flour in our bread? Provenance is a complicated thing, and as it turns out, many of our claimed culinary institutions aren’t actually very British at all.
The British love marmalade. In the UK, this sticky citrus jam has a festival celebrating it, a National week devoted to it, and even a British-made vodka flavoured with it. But neither the recipe for it, nor the core ingredient herald from the British Isles. Historically, the main ingredient of marmalade – Seville oranges – was a luxury brought in from the continent and rumour has it that the Romans learnt about marmalade from the Greeks, so it has been around the European houses, so to speak.
To make orange marmalade, all that is needed is water, sugar, a squeeze of a lemon and a whole load of Seville oranges. We, British, love to make it from scratch. Delia advises marmalade makers go for big oranges with rough skin for the perfect marmalade shred. These days, we can find a little something for everyone on the supermarket shelves – thick cut marmalade, shredless marmalade, marmalade made with lemons and limes.
It’s well known that January is the time of year for Seville oranges, though the oranges are harvested in Spain from November. Food journalist Bee Wilson writes that, “If only we demanded them sooner, we could be enjoying Sevilles throughout the winter months.” In January 2015 Waitrose reported a 20% increase in sales of Seville oranges with marmalade-makers donning their aprons to stock up the store cupboards for the year. Tiptree, who make marmalade in the UK, pick the Seville oranges they use in January and freeze them whole for year round marmalade making. Tiptree mostly uses British sugar, from sugar beets, occasionally supplemented with a European alternative.
Spread on a slice of toast, marmalade is more than the favourite of Paddington Bear, it’s loved and made on British soil by British companies dedicated to the craft, with only the essential Seville oranges obligatorily imported in from Spanish shores.
Put it on toast
While marmalade can never be 100% British, how about the bread we spread it on?
Marmalade needs toast. According to the Flour Advisory Bureau, 99% of households buy bread, in amounts that equate to around two to three slices per person, per day – making Britain a nation of bread-eaters. Technically all that is needed to make the most basic bread (a flatbread) is flour and water, but traditionally we also use salt and ‘wild’ yeast (produced from a natural sourdough starter).
These days, however, most shop-bought breads use artificial additives and conventional dried yeast. The results of which many traditional bakers feel should not be labelled with the same name, contending that the extra ingredients are additional to what traditionally defines bread. The Real Bread Campaign argues that real bread is “made without the use of processing aids or any other artificial additives.” Additives are anything your granny wouldn’t recognise as food, usually created using artificial processes, such as the Chorleywood process which is used for over 80% of factory-processed bread. This automatically limits our search for a 100% British loaf by cutting out most supermarket bread, leaving us with artisan and high street bakeries for a truer and more British bread.
Looking at the four main ingredients – water, flour, salt and yeast – water seems simple enough. Water mostly comes from our taps, either from springs, rivers, groundwater and reservoirs. Flour, salt and yeast, however, are slightly more complicated.
Our local Bristol bakeries, such as Herberts, East Bristol Bakery, Mark’s Bread and Hobbs House, all use a mixed blend of flour to give a better taste. This is not unusual. Small British flour producers such as Shipton Mill use wheat from around the world to get a perfect blend when it comes to most of their flours. Local Bristol restaurant Bertha’s Pizza told us that it could take years to find the right flour combination to make the best dough. They spent months travelling down the west coast of the USA, visiting artisan bakeries to try and find the perfect blend before opening their restaurant.
Over the past ten years we’ve seen a slow decline in local bakeries. In contrast, wheat production has significantly risen in the UK over recent years, but a huge percentage (58%) of this crop goes into animal feeds, not into dough. Our research found that we couldn’t get our hands on as many local flours as we would like, although Shipton Mill are doing a sterling job with a great selection of British flour – some only ten miles down the road from the mill itself.
Dried yeast is likewise often imported. Shipton Mill’s dried yeast comes from Germany and while Hovis‘ dried yeast mostly comes from UK, it is sometimes from the EU. There is no way of knowing what’s British and what’s not as it’s all mixed up together. However, most artisan bakeries like East Bristol Bakery use, and also sell, sourdough starters that have been cultured, in situ, at the bakery
When it comes to salt, the majority of table salt is highly processed with anti-caking agencies and other chemicals, so it also, automatically, cuts out a lot of loaves. It can be hard to buy British wholesale salt that isn’t extortionately expensive, which is why many bakeries use French salt shipped in from Brittany – or, in the case of one ‘British’ loaf in a bakery we visited, Israeli salt. This makes it especially problematic to find a truly British loaf, as salt is one of the most effective and thus widely used of all food preservatives.
So in the case of bread (or in this particular case, our Marmalade laden toast), what you find in the local bakery is likely to be mostly local rather than wholly local, with the bulk of ingredients coming from the UK.
How close can we get?
So, can we find ourselves a truly British marmalade on toast? Well, we can get pretty close if we bake our own bread using exclusively British grown and milled flour, British sea salt and our own sourdough culture, topped with a home-made marmalade using British sugar beet. But we will always need to import that most important ingredient, Seville oranges.
Fortunately, groups like the Real Bread Campaign are working hard to bring British flour back to the breadboard, and some British heritage flours such as spelt and emmer are making a steady comeback, showing us that the British favourite may just fight its corner on the bakery shelf yet. Marmalade isn’t going anywhere, with imports of Seville oranges remaining steady and an ever-increasing diversity of choice on our supermarket shelves.
No one has fallen in love with marmalade on toast quite like the British people, and although the possibility of breakfasting on an extremely local, mostly British, version of this delicacy could perhaps be increasing, it will likely always be influenced by the best ingredients from around the world.
Photograph: Roy Luck