I first noticed a display of Wilkin & Sons “Tiptree” preserves while on a scouting expedition for Royal Warrant products at my neighborhood grocery store. I’d never heard of the brand or the company and was impressed with its story: Wilkin & Sons has been making preserves since 1885. Today much of the fruit needed for the preserves is grown by the company on its own farmland. The business is held by a Trust, of which 50 percent is employee-owned. It has been a continuous Royal Warrant holder since George V granted it one in 1911, and today it holds a warrant from the Queen as “Purveyors of Tiptree Products.”
Right away I want to like Wilkin & Sons. These seem like good people making a good product. At the same time, I have to admit it’s a product I don’t eat. I hate jelly. It’s right up there with honey on the list of sticky, saccharine things I find really disgusting even though most people love them. I shelled out $8 to buy a beautiful little jar of Tiptree orange marmalade, but the whole way home I was asking myself, What are you going to do with this stuff?
I thought I had lucked out when I Googled recipes that use orange marmalade and found I could make a Chinese-style orange chicken (http://norecipes.com/blog/orange-chicken-recipe/). It seemed pretty straightforward except for a line in the recipe warning me that “the cheaper the marmalade you use, the better your orange chicken will turn out.” The recipe didn’t explain why, so I just ignored that tip and continued on with my eight-dollar version. The finished dish looked absolutely beautiful, and we couldn’t wait to eat it.
I think Adam was the first person to subtly point out that the taste was a little off: “This is really nasty. What’s in here?”
Nathan politely took a bite with his plastic toddler spork but then spit it out as soon as I turned my back. The problem was the kind of pungent taste in the sauce. The little pieces of orange peel in it were very bitter, and if you got one or two of those in your mouth at a time, it sort of choked you. I remembered the advice in the recipe and realized that a cheaper orange marmalade would have probably been sweeter.
“I guess I didn’t add enough sugar,” I told Adam, who promptly disagreed with me.
“No, it’s the marmalade. It’s too bitter. You need a sweeter marmalade.”
The thing is, I don’t want a sweeter marmalade. I want to eat the Queen’s marmalade.
Adam used the rest of the marmalade the next day in a recipe for orange-blueberry muffins with an orange juice and powdered sugar icing. They were alright, but if I veered too far from the thin sheet of icing on top of the muffin I was back to gagging on orange peel. For breakfast one morning Nathan licked the icing off of two muffins but then left the rest lying on his plate.
We weren’t really sure where to go from there. The Queen eats this stuff, and the company seems like a fabulous one. How could we review it poorly? I decided we should get a second opinion, so I asked my friend Sara if she wouldn’t mind trying it. Maybe our family’s preference for sweets is so strong that we can’t appreciate a flavor as robust and…um…earthy as that of the marmalade? Sara politely tried the marmalade on toast one morning and then got back to me in an email: “I tried the orange marmalade you gave me and completely agree with you and Adam. It was way too bitter for my Mexican-American and proletariat taste buds.”
“I was worried that my palate wasn’t sophisticated enough but then came across this article after a quick Google search…”
She then included a link to an article by Felicity Cloake in The Guardian that says sales of orange marmalade have been falling in England, largely because people are beginning to prefer chocolate spreads on their toast (http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/wordofmouth/2011/jan/12/marmalade). For some reason, this trend seems to really worry Cloake, so she spends the majority of her article extolling the many virtues of orange marmalade: its historical significance, its intensely British identity, its famous fans. She even makes a last-ditch effort at the end to connect the stuff with one Paddington Bear, who apparently loves marmalade sandwiches. I found her arguments really unconvincing. If British people can’t force this stuff down any longer, I shouldn’t have to. Also, Paddington Bear isn’t exactly known for having impeccable taste. Have you seen that hat of his?
I’d pretty much given up on the entire Tiptree line when Adam’s mom arrived home from a work trip to England with several new Royal Warrant products for me to try. Among them was a small sampler of Tiptree preserves in three flavors: strawberry, orange marmalade, and black currant. The very sight of the orange marmalade made me shudder all over again, and the strawberry jelly looked completely unappealing to this jelly-hater. Tentatively I dipped a teaspoon into the jar of black currant preserves. What I tasted was pure, unadulterated heaven.
“What exactly is a currant?” I asked Adam, the jelly still stuck to the corners of my mouth.
Adam, who knows everything, was temporarily stumped. “It’s a…it’s a little thing…”
“Is it a grape?”
“Is it a berry?”
Apparently black currants (yes, they are berries) are a serious matter in the United States (http://www.currantc.com/index.php?src=gendocs&ref=AboutCurrants). For one thing, they’ve been banned for the past 100 years because their plants were a popular host for blister rust, which was thought to threaten the American timber industry. They’re just now making a limited comeback in parts of the Northeast. For another, they’ve long been nicknamed “the forbidden fruit,” which I think is a pretty brilliant PR move. You want black currants? Sorry, you can’t have them.
Unless you buy imported Tiptree preserves. From now on, I think I do.
Where to buy: I found a huge selection of Tiptree products at Treasure Island. They’re also available at Britishfood.com, http://www.britishfood.com/product.asp?id=1366. If you’re a fan of strawberry jams and jellies, try to get your hands on the company’s Little Scarlet variety when it’s released once each year, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A20046-2004Sep14.html.