When you watch snowflakes swirling outside your window on a grey November afternoon, it’s hard to imagine that somewhere else there are flowers blooming and citrus trees laden with golden orbs. On the southern coast of Italy, Calabrian bergamot farmers are preparing to collect fruit, and for most of the month, the air in Reggio Calabria will be thickly perfumed with a peppery citrus essence as bergamot rinds are processed into essential oil.
Although we usually encounter bergamot as essence perfuming our cologne or Earl Grey tea, the fruit itself is a marvel. It has a heady aroma, and it tastes exactly the same way it smells–spicy, acidic, with a hint of green jasmine. It’s much sharper than lemon but also more complex and fragrant.
Bergamot juice can be substituted for lemon in marinades, sauces or dressings. Imagine poached salmon with bergamot mayonnaise or bergamot-basil pesto rubbed over pork chops. The juicy flesh can be tossed with salad greens, onions, and parsley to accompany grilled meat or seafood. But in Calabria and much of southern Italy, bergamot usually ends up candied or in a jam. Bergamot jam is one of my most vivid memories of southern Italy, and whenever I get a chance, I recreate it at home.
Once the bergamot season starts in Italy, we, the sun deprived folk of the northern lands, benefit as well. I can’t speak for other places in Europe, but in Brussels and Paris, both green and yellow bergamots are available at the farmer’s markets and well-stocked supermarché. The fruit lasts for a couple of months stored in a cool, dry place, but for the best flavor, it should be used within the first two weeks.
Since bergamot is far from a supermarket staple, this marmalade recipe can be successfully used with other citrus fruit such as tangerines, clementines, kumquats, yuzu, Meyer lemons, and of course, oranges. While other bergamots have a strong flavor, oranges take kinder to experiments, and a dash of orange blossom water gives marmalade a bright floral accent.
If you’ve never made jam before, citrus marmalade is a good one to try first. Unlike more temperamental berries or peaches, it always sets, because citrus is rich in jell-producing pectin. Finally, the perfume filling your kitchen as you cook marmalade is reason enough to give it a try.
You can puree the fruit coarsely in a food processor or slice the rinds by hand into thin slivers. I prefer the texture and jewel-like look of the latter method, but there is no doubt that the food processor saves a bit of time and the resulting jam has a finer texture–perfect to be used as a filling for sponge cakes, crepes or as a sweet glaze for grilled chicken. However you prep your citrus fruit, the result is heady and perfumed. Smucker’s doesn’t even come close.
Bergamot (or Orange) Marmalade
Makes 2 450g/1lb jars
Besides bergamots and oranges, you can use clementines, tangerines, kumquats, or yuzu for this marmalade.
Taste your bergamot first. Some varieties have a mild bitter flavor, but others are much more pungent. If your fruit has overly bitter peel, then you can use the following procedure for blanching. Peel the fruit and set the flesh aside to be chopped later. Bring a pot of water to boil, add peel and simmer for 2 minutes. Rinse well with cold water for 2 minutes and repeat the process one or two more times, as needed. The peel is now ready to be used in the recipe.
1lb (500g) bergamots or oranges (3 medium bergamots or 2 large navel oranges)
2 cups (400g) sugar
1/2 cup (125ml) water
1 Tablespoon orange blossom water (if using oranges)
Puree fruit, skin included (but not the seeds), in a food processor. Or cut the fruit into quarters and slice the quarters into thin slivers. Save any juice and tie the seeds in a piece of muslin.
In a large heavy bottom pot, add the citrus fruit mixture, juice, muslin bag with seeds and water. Bring to a boil, then immediately reduce to a simmer and cook until the peels are translucent, about 15-20 minutes. Remove from the heat and let the mixture rest for 2 hours. (It helps to release pectin and essential oils from the rinds).
Add the sugar to the citrus fruit mixture, bring it to a boil again and reduce to slow simmer. Stir from time to time to make sure that the fruit doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pot. The marmalade will take about 15-20 minutes. Fish out the muslin bag, squeeze any liquid out of it and give the marmalade a good stir. Remove from heat and check if it is set.
To test, spoon a bit of hot marmalade onto a small plate. Transfer it to a freezer for 1 minute. Now, tilt plate and see if the jam “wrinkles.” If so, it’s done. (If you’re using a candy thermometer, the temperature should be around 221F/105C).
Once the marmalade is cooked, stir in the orange blossom water, if you were using oranges, then ladle into clean jars and twist on the lids tightly. Cool and store in the refrigerator.
Photography by Bois de Jasmin