The Quintessential California Marmalade

The Huntington Library's home-grown marmalade has a cult following.

5 mins read
orange crate art
A turn of the century orange crate label. Photo: The Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Garden. Used with permission

Orange groves have been iconic to the Southern Californian imagination for more than a century, even though citrus fruit trees are not indigenous to our region, and the Valencia orange, in particular, has largely been replaced by the navel orange in the 270,000 acres or so devoted to citrus growing in California.

But at The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, the historic mystique of the orange not only persists, but is growing exponentially.

A bunch of oranges
The bounty of Valencia oranges at The Huntington Library’s grove. Photo: Victoria Thomas

We found our way through the morning mizzle last Sunday to check in on the first step in producing what is perhaps the most unique item in The Huntington’s vast gift shop: The Huntington’s Sweet Orange Marmalade. The marmalade has been produced since 2003, using fruit produced by 500 Valencia orange trees located in the Kitchen Garden on the Huntington grounds.

The historic orchard took root around 1903 when Henry E. Huntington bought the property and had it planted with Valencia oranges, avocados, guavas, and Japanese persimmons. A few of the original Valencia orange trees survive today and still produce fruit used in the marmalade.

Mark Millmore, Director of Retail for The Huntington, says that demand for the marmalade has jumped “…ten-fold since the re-opening of our Rose Garden Tea Room in May 2023. We’ve all been on pins and needles because the cool, damp weather pushed the picking late into the season. We were afraid we’d run out.”

Erik Stromvall, Gardener of the Experiential Garden, handed out tools to a small army of high school students who volunteered as pickers. “We do have some navel oranges elsewhere on the property,” explained Stromvall, “And those are the oranges we eat right off the tree. The Valencia is bitter by comparison, but the rind is fragrant and potent. We grow a hybrid here developed by a pioneer agronomist named William Wolfskill that’s perfect for marmalade.”

teenagers picking oranges
Aiden Chang, a freshman at San Marino High School, joins with other volunteers to harvest oranges which are bright in color, and free of “…insect bore-holes and any weird, icky blemshes.” Photo: Victoria Thomas

It was Wolfskill who planted the Golden State’s first commercial orange orchard in 1841 near what is now downtown Los Angeles. A bit later in the century, responding to the citrus boom in Southern California and simultaneous expansion of railway service into the American West, a dealer in luxury foods named Edwin Waldo Ward, Sr. moved from New Jersey to Sierra Madre.

Ward imported California’s first two Seville orange trees from Spain, and planted ten acres of oranges with the intention of giving British marmalade-makers a run for their money. By 1917, his fledgling company was the exclusive supplier of marmalade to the dining cars of railroad lines that reached from the major Eastern cities to the Pacific.

Ward’s business acumen formed the foundation for what was to become the family-run jam, jelly, preserves and syrups empire now known as E. Waldo Ward & Son, which still stands as Sierra Madre’s oldest business. Since 2003, the company has processed and packaged The Huntington’s best-selling marmalade.

Today, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, Florida now supplies most of the oranges grown in the USA, with a market share of 75 percent. California’s production of the Valencia orange specifically has dwindled to about 17 percent of the state’s overall production, with navel oranges representing the Paddington Bear’s share of the oranges grown in our state.

orgnage-related gift products displayed
Retail orange-themed products available at The Huntington Library Gift Shop. Photo: Mark Millimore, courtesy of The Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Garden

And yet, the nostalgic notion of the sun-kissed orange grove, specifically The Huntington’s orchard, persists in the California imagination.

Under Millmore’s insightful curation, the marmalade enjoys celeb status in the gift shop, accompanied by all manner of orange-themed trinkets and treasures ranging from reproduction prints of vintage orange crate labels now found in The Huntington’s collection to a tiny, glossy enamel pendant in the shape of a ripe orange.

Millmore explains that the marmalade is now more popular than ever, including an increase in bulk sales for corporate gifting.

As a standalone gift, it’s a tremendous value at $8.95, quite apart from the local lore and legacy. The 10oz / 283g jar contains 14 one-tablespoon (20g) servings at 50 calories each.

A glass jar of orange marmalade
The Huntington’s marmalade enjoys a growing cult following, a sweet pick for $8.95. Photo: The Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Garden, used with permission

The Ward recipe utilizes cane sugar instead of the ubiquitous high-fructose corn syrup found in lesser blends, and the choice of sweetening agent means that, remarkably, the marmalade does not require refrigeration after opening. An opened but screwed-shut jar has an estimated safe shelf-life of six months.

But who are we kidding? Breakfast of champions: a buttermilk donut topped with marmalade. After midnight, add vanilla ice cream and a splash of Grand Marnier or Cointreau.

Marmalade is a versatile pantry product with culinary possibilities that reach far beyond scones and toast. A generous dollop melted into hot red pepper flakes, salt and garlic in a sizzling wok replicates some of our best Chinese takeout experiences as the basis for our Year of the Dragon Spicy Orange Beef.

A woman sitting in a bowl
Valencia oranges. Next stop, Sierra Madre. Photo: Victoria Thomas

Blended with mustard, curry powder and horseradish, it’s a yummy dipping sauce for anything fried. Every summer, we blend marmalade with soy sauce, dry mustard and rum for grilling up island-vibes ribs.

Right out of the jar (or, even better, the 5-gallon pails that the Ward company supplies to the Rose Garden Tea Room, which are unfortunately not sold to the public), marmalade is ideal for glazing, basting and marinating poultry and pork. Adding apricot jam, orange juice, honey and hot mustard makes the glaze a bit more sophisticated. Blend with Amaretto liqueur and grated ginger in place of mini marshmallows for a quick upgrade on oven-baked sweet potatoes.

Dessert, anyone? We reach for the marmalade to make classic jam cookie bars with shortbread-style crust, as well as in our rolled rugelach, and to crown a citrusy summer cheesecake spiked with grated lemon, lime and orange zest.

Saturday, June 1st, 9am-1pm

Zest Fest at Cal State Northridge

Check out Food Forward’s Zest Fest, happening Saturday. June 1, 9:00 AM – 1:00 PM at California State University, Northridge, at the orange grove there, located at 18111 Nordhoff Street. Registration is required for this free event, which offers family fun, including games, refreshments and activities for all ages. Three shifts or Harvest Groups will do the picking, celebrating the Food Forward’s 15th anniversary of fighting hunger and reducing food waste.

Gardener Stromvall adds that the oranges, sweet peas, artichokes, corn, raspberries and other food crops at The Huntington are raised “absolutely” without the use of pesticides, herbicides or petroleum-based fertilizers, noting that the orchard is modeled after Masanobu Fukuoka’s landmark book, “The One-Straw Revolution.”

Blemished or imperfect fruit is composted, and any surplus is donated to Los Angeles food banks across Los Angeles in collaboration with nonprofit gleaning group Food Forward.

A close up of a person holding an animal
South Pasadena High School students Ryan Kim and Daxton Brown show off a baby gopher discovered within the citrus grove. Photo: Victoria Thomas

Of course, none of the above precludes trouble in paradise. A male vocalization—“D-U-U-U-D-E!”—pierces the morning fog as South Pasadena High School students Ryan Kim and Daxton Brown scoop up a baby gopher.

Stromvall directs them to release the creature at the other end of The Huntington Library, where it is less likely to end up in the body-grip traps used near food crops to reduce the impact of hungry rodents since California state law precludes live trapping and relocation of trapped animals.

Volunteer picker Thorson Pearson, a student at Pasadena High School, class of 2025, has an interest in biology and says, “This is a unique experience. It’s amazing how clear the air is once you get out of the city.”

A little boy that is standing in the grass
Pasadena High School senior Zoey Kuhn finds the monotony of orange-picking soothing. Photo by Victoria Thomas

Picker Zoey Kuhn, a classmate, adds, “Picking is repetitive, and it feels very therapeutic. It’s enjoyable.”

Demand for The Huntington’s marmalade now requires more than one harvest per season, if the yield will permit. Millmore says, “I can imagine a time when we may need more trees to meet the demand for our marmalade.”

All we can say is, keep picking.

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Victoria Thomas

Victoria has been a journalist since her college years when she wrote for Rolling Stone and CREEM. Victoria describes the view of Mt. Wilson from her front step as “staggering,” and she is a defender of peacocks everywhere.
Email: [email protected]

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