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Q From Joan Leary, Alabama; a related question came from Dick Stacy: I was reading an old cookery book the other day and learned that the origin of the word marmalade had some connection with Mary, the Queen of Scotland. This is fascinating! Do tell me more!

A It is fascinating but unfortunately for the wrong reasons. Most writers on food and cookery would probably be very willing to admit that they’re not as expert in etymology as they are in the culinary arts. This story proves the point. To be fair, it has been known for many years and was far from new when this appeared:

Spanish oranges had been stored there, and she [Mary] made a new sort of preserve — called after herself as she told them proudly, for the cook at her grandmother’s chateau of Joinville had made it to tempt her appetite when she was ill; “Marie est malade,” he had muttered again and again as he racked his brain to invent something new for her, and “Mariemalade” they had called it ever since.

The Gay Galliard: the Love Story of Mary, Queen of Scots, by Margaret Irwin, 1942.

Mary’s French connections (she was at one time married to Francis, who was the Dauphin, the eldest son of the then king of France, Henri II) were enough to peg this extraordinary invention to her. This is yet another case of the way that a good story can triumph over historical veracity.

As it happens, the truth is more interesting. The original food wasn’t made from oranges, but from quinces. These were cooked with honey and in the process the unpromising bitter green fruit was transformed into a sweet pink paste, which was stiff enough to be cut with a knife and be served in slices as a kind of dessert. The first of these preserves were made in Portugal and were called marmelada, from the word for quince in Portuguese, marmelo. This is from the Latin melimelum, a sweet variety of apple, in turn from the Greek, usually translated as summer-apple (an early-ripening type), which seems to have been the name for a type of apple grafted on to a quince rootstock.

The product kept well and was exported to Britain in wooden cases. It was at first a luxury item (customs duty was slapped on it in the fifteenth century, so it must have been worth taxing) but English cooks later learned to make their own.

The first name for it was chardecoynes or char de quince, the Old French term for a pulp made from quinces, but the Portuguese alternative began to appear in the latter part of the fifteenth century; in 1524, the papers of King Henry VIII recorded a gift, which in modern English would read, “Presented by Hull of Exeter one box of marmalade”.

An early English recipe called for quinces to be beaten to a pulp with a type of apple called wardens, boiled with honey until the mixture was thick and then spiced with a mixture of ginger, galingale and cinnamon. The shift to oranges happened rather slowly. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, plums, dates, cherries and other fruits were all made into preserves called marmalades. This has continued to the present day, though in the UK, as a result of EU regulations, products sold under the name of marmalade must be made from citrus fruits.

In time, the link with quinces was lost and the historical link with them is preserved only in the name, leaving its origin open to ingenious storytelling.

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Page created 20 Aug 2011