I always assumed the first signs of age I would show would be physical: a laugh line here, a spot of gray there, perhaps some slight confusion between the letters 'F' and 'P' on the eye chart at the doctor's office. Never in a million years would I have believed you if you told me my lust for adventure - my insatiable need for 'new' - would be the first thing to go, and never in a trillion gazillion years would I have even listened to the end of your sentence if you'd dropped the word 'food' in there too. But the signs are becoming hard to ignore. Just yesterday, for example, I realized that I've eaten the same thing for lunch every day for the past twenty-three - count 'em, twenty-three - days. Not more or less the same thing, exactly the same thing: the same ham and cheddar on the same toasted pita with the same tomato chutney, avocado and mayo. And you know what's worse? I'm not even tired of it yet. Oh dear, just admitting that makes me blush.
But that's nothing compared to my mandarin habit, which makes my lunchtime pita look like a fleeting fancy. The problem, you see, is that I have this tendency to latch on to a particular fruit in season, and not let go until I'm dragged, kicking and screaming, to the next one. Last summer it happened with nectarines and greengage plums, the withdrawal from which - when my supplies finally dried up - I wasn't entirely sure I was going to survive. The summer before it was flats of enormous local raspberries. The fall before that, it was soft-as-marshmallow figs from Turkey. And currently it's mandarins, which I began eating tentatively last December when the first cheerful orbs from Spain and Cyprus hit the shelves, and which now I'm consuming so voraciously that they're competing with things like cheese and olive oil to occupy the biggest slice of my daily caloric pie-chart. It's scary, I tell you - when my local market ran out of them a couple of weeks ago, I nearly fainted on the spot. In retrospect, I probably should have taken advantage of the shortage to practice a bit of Zen non-attachment. Instead, I waited until they re-stocked, bought nearly their entire supply, and made some mandarin jam.
Yes, mandarin jam. If you, like me, thought citrus preserves came in one flavor only, namely the flavor of acrid, bitter peel they call 'marmalade' (my profuse apologies if you like the stuff; I've never quite understood the attraction), you're in for a treat. What I discovered on my recent trip to Calabria is that marmalade is only one of many ways of putting citrus and sugar together into a jar, and the most delicious of them all surely must be this jam. My epiphany on the matter came during a dinner at a place just outside of Sibari called Casa Chella, a lovely restaurant-cum-olive-and-citrus-farm run by Natale Falsetta and his wife Maria. There, in addition to many other delicious things, I was served one of the simplest, yet most memorable desserts I've eaten in a long time: a soft, tender sponge cake filled with homemade mandarin jam. Although they called it marmellata di mandarini, I knew at first bite this was no ordinary marmalade - without even a trace of bitterness getting in the way of the pure, intense sweetness of the mandarins, it tasted like the Mediterranean sun itself in spreadable form.
Although I made a feeble attempt to wheedle the recipe out of Maria in the kitchen, I wasn't very successful; it's not that she wouldn't give it to me, but rather that she assumed I know more about jam making than I do. "Well, you just peel the mandarins," she told me, shrugging nonchalantly, "and cook them with sugar until it sets. That's all." Or that was the gist of it anyway - what I actually noted down was 'peel - sugar - cook', so needless to say, the specifics took some improvisation. But not much, actually - this must be one of the easiest preserves in existence. In fact, a quick blitz in the food processor and a leisurely half-hour-boil on the stovetop are all that stand between you and a cupboard full of of chunky, sweet-tart mandarin bliss, as delicious spread between sponge cake layers as it is drizzled on a bowl of plain yogurt or slathered thickly on hot toast. Or you could do what I do and spoon it straight out of the jar when no one's looking. Just be sure to use a small spoon - it's still a long time until greengage season, after all.
The best mandarins for jam are full-flavored and juicy, but they don't need to be particularly sweet. In any case, you should employ your tastebuds to find the optimum balance of sugar for your batch of fruit. While you can certainly use any variety of mandarin to make this, if you're using something particularly small, throw in a couple extra to make up for the higher proportion of peel (FYI, the ones I based this recipe on were about 1/4 pound each). I imagine you could also employ this technique for just about any kind of citrus fruit - meyer lemons and grapefruit come to mind, for instance - though naturally the quantities of sugar and lemon would probably need some adjustment.
Yield: about 1 quart; recipe can be easily scaled up
1 kilo (generous 2 lbs) mandarins, any variety: clementines, tangerines, satsumas, etc., preferably organic
500 grams (2 1/2 cups) sugar, or more to taste
juice of 2-3 lemons
Wash 2-3 of your mandarins and zest them, carefully avoiding the white pith underneath. You should have about a tablespoon. Peel all of your fruit, removing as much of the pith and filaments as possible. Working over a bowl to catch the juices, cut each mandarin in half around its equator, and pick out any seeds. Place the halves along with any juice they've expelled in a food processor and process for about a minute, until you have a more or less smooth puree.
Combine the mandarin puree, tablespoon of zest, sugar and lemon juice in a large, heavy saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat so it continues to boil gently. Allow the mixture to cook, stirring occasionally, until it sets, about 25-30 minutes. To test the set, place a small saucer in the freezer for a couple of minutes, then drizzle a teaspoon of hot jam on it. Allow to cool, then run your finger through it. If it holds the trough, it's set. Also taste for sweetness at this point - if you think it could use more, add a bit more sugar and cook another minute or two; do the same with lemon juice if the acidity needs some perking up.
Pour into hot, sterilized jars, seal tightly and turn upside down until cool. Or use your tried-and-true canning method. Or simply keep in a closed container in the fridge for up to a month.