Kitchens up and down the UK are currently scented with orange, Sevilles to be precise, as they’re pared, boiled and sugared with the alchemy of heat and time to create marmalade, a very British obsession.
Many of these Sevilles are bought in Waitrose supermarket, whose annual stock is sourced from a beautiful farm in southern Spain, only a few kilometres from the city of Seville.
Drive 2o kilometres east of the city to Mairena del Alcor and then between the rather grand stone and iron gateway and you’ll find yourself in Ave Maria Farm. Led by Amadora Gahona, this family run farm has belonged to the family since 1935 and has been growing oranges commercially for over 60 years. Mairena del Alcor translates from the old Arab word Mairena for Maharana (water of fountain, thanks generous flow of natural water from local aquifers) and Alcor (rolling hills).
“Ave Maria oranges mature and ripen naturally at the perfect rate due to the seasons of the year,” says Amadora. “Our friends, the bees, help us in this aspect. Everything at the Ave Maria farm is a gift of nature”.
Sevilles are harvested throughout December and January, before the trees are covered with gorgeously, sweet scented white blossom. Harvested by hand in late April to early May their essence, Neroli, is used in perfumes such as Agua de Sevilla (the perfume, not the cocktail!) and is even rumoured to be a secret addition in Coca-Cola!
“Here the soil is full of minerals, in particular phosphorous, which contributes a special sweetness to our Ave Maria Sevilles, which makes them stand apart from all other types,” says Amadora. “Nature gives us this amazing balance. This, along with the respect that our family has for the production of the Ave Marias, a production which is protected by the organic stamp, and the passion that the family feels for the citrus world (allows us to grow such amazing fruit). Here we love what we do”.
The Ave Maria ‘mother’ farm runs to 10 hectares and surrounds the beautiful family home. “This is a wonderful place,” says Amadora. “We also own several other groves around the town. The area and farm is very popular with tourists from all over the world, “who find a wonderful place to breathe freedom and peace in the beautiful walk we organise through the gardens and Ave Maria Seville orange groves. Such visits finish with a cooking demo on making marmalade and tasting.”
The history of the Ave Maria Sevilles is intimately linked to my personal history, says Amadora. “Since I was very young I’ve been involved in the family business, and I’ve always had contact with the production and delivery of the oranges. This has given me a great knowledge of the subject and, above all, an enormous passion for our Ave Maria Sevilles.
“What I remember the most about my childhood are the winters, when the orange season arrived. I’ve got beautiful memories of people working in the fields and in the packing house; lots of life on the farm, and the special aroma of marmalade cooking in the kitchen for the family. I remember the British people visiting the farm, seeing this sight, this environment of tradition and future that we love to preserve.
“In the winter months our seven metre trees are laden with fruit, intensely coloured and vivid against the intense green of the foliage. It’s a beautiful sight to behold, and where so many people have come to see what has been called, “the original Universe of the Seville orange,” says Amadora.
So, do you ever think about all the people, particularly the British, using your oranges to make marmalade? “We love to be in contact with the people who make marmalade with our oranges. We feel like they are our extended family and we always receive lovely comments. They ask us questions, send us photos of the oranges and the marmalade. Our personal contact with them is what drives our passion.
“We always have Sir Winston Churchill’s words in the back of our minds, who after the Second World War, a difficult time for the United Kingdom, recommended making marmalade with Seville oranges to fill the British homes with sunshine, sunbeams in a marmalade jar”.
“This is a marvellous testimonial that lifts the spirits. Every year we receive dozens of photos of the jars of marmalade and they tell us: here we have sunshine in a jar. It doesn’t matter how hard the winter may be, we love sending sunshine to our British friends,” says Amadora.
“Ave Maria sell 80% of our production to the UK, and the rest of them go to central and northern Europe, especially France, Germany, Denmark, Austria, Switzerland and Sweden. “At the end of the season there’s not one single orange left,” says Amadora.
So do Amadora and her family actually like marmalade? “Yes, we make our own marmalade. We are big marmalade eaters in our family. The tradition is passed down through the generations, and now it’s my children who make the marmalade. It’s lovely”.