Making marmalade

Roger makes the best marmalade. People buy his distinctive squat jars of marmalade with their hand-drawn labels to give as presents, but I expect not all jars make it to the intended recipient. His marmalade is legendary. His Seville range is my all-time favourite, but others swear by the whiskey marmalade, mandarin, or cumquat.

‘It is all in the way the fruit is cut,’ he says enigmatically and when I watch him make a batch, I see what he means. He takes his time, halving the orange and halving it again before he begins cutting along one side on an angle. He uses his fingertips as a guide and employs a large sharp knife to cut exceptionally fine slices.

‘That’s the trick,’ he says, ‘most people cut the oranges too thick, and you don’t get the same flavour.’

Roger is right of course. Home-made marmalade is usually chunky with pieces of hard rind which is bitter while shop bought marmalade is over processed mush and much too sweet. Spending the time to cut it finely makes a big difference to the final product.

He rapidly boils the fruit in water before reducing it to a gentle simmer. Floating in the liquid is a small muslin bag he has fashioned with the seeds and pith of the oranges. This releases pectin and helps the marmalade set.

Before adding the sugar, he tastes the rind to ensure it has softened. This is where the magic begins. The marmalade is stirred often, and a small plate awaits in the freezer for the all-important setting point test. Roger has made marmalade for so long now, he needs only to look at the simmering pot to determine whether the timing is right. A small spoonful of the sticky liquid is dropped onto the plate, and he gently pushes his finger from its edge towards the middle. If the surface crinkles, the marmalade is ready to pour into the sterilised jars he retrieves from the oven.

Roger works quickly now, pouring the marmalade into the jars and tightening the lids on with a double twist action. The jars are then taken out into the cold night air and left overnight. This works like a charm. In the morning, the marmalade has set, and the sun plays with the rich, translucent amber colouring.

After the jars are brought back in and cleaned, it is time for the labels. These are handwritten using a quill dipped in India ink. Roger draws a small tree with orange dots on the left-hand side of the label before adding a ‘date of birth’ for each batch. Dozens of exquisite jars line shelves in the kitchen, ready for the taking.

There’s always a smidge of marmalade left which is poured into a small bowl. This is the breakfast marmalade, awaiting a slice of toast or two. There is no point resisting temptation. I shun the margarine, reach for the butter and marmalade and brew myself a strong pot of tea.

Letter writing

I have always been a letter writer. As a child I wrote letters to my grandmother on wide-lined stationery with a scene of snow white printed on the top of each page. The seven dwarfs with coloured hats stood in a garden next to a cottage where Snow White leaned out of a window. The scene took up about a third of the page for which I was grateful, as I never really knew what to say to the old woman who lived far away and whose face I could not recall.

Later, I wrote letters to friends and found I had lots to say. Some were posted while others were passed furtively across a school desk, telling my best friend about some drama unfolding in my head. I wrote letters to boys I liked that were never posted. I spent hours agonising over the right words to use but in the end, they were scrunched into tight balls and thrown into the wastepaper basket. I was doubly frustrated when I not only missed revealing my feelings to the boy du jour but missed the bin as well.

In my twenties I began to travel and collected friends around the world. The friendships were intense, and we talked for hours about the state of the world, books we were reading and courses we took at university. Phone calls were expensive, so we wrote – sometimes daily, on light blue aerograms which were as thin as tissue paper and cheap to send. I bought aerograms by the dozen, franked and ready to send. I modified my messy script so I could fit more onto the page and once I folded and licked the three sides to seal the letter, I sometimes added a P.S. under my address on the outside.

My letters began to be more sporadic in my thirties as I worked, commuted, and eventually had a child. Phone calls became cheaper and for a while, I alternated writing letters with a call every now and again. The letters arriving in my letter box became less frequent too, as my friends took on responsibilities and our yearly trips stretched to two, five or more years. With the arrival of email, we promised we would write more often but this never eventuated. Email doesn’t have the same impact as retrieving a handwritten envelope from the letter box and tearing it open to reveal a letter to hold in both hands. A letter is to be savoured, to be read and reread, shown to a friend or two and kept safe.

After years of neglect, I have started writing letters again. Letters to my 91 year-old mother-in-law who cannot hear me on the phone, letters to friends in lock-down and the occasional letter to old friends overseas. I haven’t tried to buy an aerogram for years and don’t know whether they still exist. I have, however, tracked down an alternative on thicker paper with a prettier cover that folds and gums just like aerograms did. Maybe letter writing is making a comeback the way vinyl records have done. I feel a pang of nostalgia as I write on this paper and love that I have to keep my message brief. The recipient of my letter must carefully cut open the sides to reveal that which I have shared within.

Rereading old letters, I come to understand their real purpose. Much more than simply an exchange of information, they are a testament to the bond of friendship nurtured over the years.


Spring has come suddenly. A week ago, temperatures were still in single digits and icy Antarctic winds blew across paddocks. This week, an azure sky greets us each morning and buds are shaking off their winter mantle, emerging from their deep sleep.

In a single day, leaves appear and apple blossoms beckon bees to their nectar. The first flies emerge and even they are a welcome sight. A young green backed crimson rosella who has come looking for seeds is quickly set right when she intrudes on an adult pair feeding. Stocky, crested pigeons arrive and there’s a stand-off between the birds. A dog barks and the pigeons take off with a characteristic whistling sound. This is created as air flutters between narrow feathers on its wing. A pied currawong lands and has a furtive look but is driven away by a pair of magpies. They feed, crane their necks towards the sky and warble in gratitude before leaving.

In the backyard, the lawn is overgrown. A languid blue tongue lizard emerges from the shadows seeking the sun. It could be mistaken for a garden ornament until something catches its eye. Suddenly it moves with diagonally opposite feet at unexpected speed. It is a reminder that snakes are also coming out of brumation and are looking for food, warmth and a mate.

After a wet winter, water lies in flooded ditches and the Eastern froglet can be heard from a distance. The deafening sound is easily confused with that of a cricket except that the chirp is at a slightly lower pitch. There must be dozens of these critters creating such a racket. Not even walking past with dogs disturbs the male frog’s amorous call.

Ornamental prunus blush pink along the nature strip, like bridesmaids at a wedding. They sway in the September wind, decidedly underdressed in blossoms without foliage. Other trees experiment with sending their first leaves to their stem tips. Is it time to let the next ones unfurl or is it better to wait? The silver birches err on the side of caution and hold tightly onto their buds. They aren’t ready yet to trust the change of season.

It seems the birches are right. As the afternoon progresses, the wind pulls across a blanket of grey clouds to cover the sky and temperatures drop back to single digits. Trees shiver and blossoms begin to lose their precious first petals. Tree branches knock against the windowpane as if asking to be let in from the cold. Spring may dither in these first few weeks of September but there’s no holding back its promise of abundant splendour.


My grandmother lived in an old war-scarred building in central Budapest. There were gunshot wounds on the outside façade and even the courtyard wall showed bullet holes from the hand-to-hand combat that took place in 1944 and again in 1956.

She lived in a tiny flat on the second floor with windows facing the cobbled courtyard that was in shadow for most of the day. For no more than a couple of hours, the sun’s rays found their way to her window and graced the otherwise dull living room with light. This was the world she inhabited for over 40 years.

She didn’t have many possessions and most of what she owned was utilitarian. The exceptions were some crocheted doilies on a coffee table, a few precious crystal glasses in a vitrine and two pots of cyclamens, pink and white which she kept on the windowsill in between old-fashioned double opening windows.

Her cyclamens bloomed even in the depths of winter when snow lay ankle deep on pavements. The space between the two windows became a greenhouse where her precious flowers flourished and brought delight. Cyclamens were her favourite flowers and she had a gift for encouraging them to bloom.

I have never been quite so lucky with cyclamens. I overwater them, have them too close to a western window where the leaves fry or I place them too far from the sun so that the flowers have to crane their necks to get to the light. My flowers never look better than on the day I receive them, wrapped in tissue paper from a well-meaning friend.

‘They look so beautiful!’ I say and I mean it with all my heart. But my hear sinks a little too. I know that no matter what, in a month, the flowers will be well past their glory days. They will never look like the burst of blooms on my grandmother’s windowsill.

‘Thank you so much, Cyclamens always remind me of my grandmother,’ I say wistfully. Then, my friend, satisfied with her choice, knows that she has given me the perfect gift…

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