Marmalade – however you eat it and wherever you get it – is something we owe to global trade

Stephen Vines says Chinese exports of marmalade to the US are small and unlikely to be decisive in the trade war, but marmalade is itself a product with a uniquely global production history, showing how much we benefit from international trade

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 August, 2018, 6:02am
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 August, 2018, 6:05am

Marmalade made the front page of this newspaper’s business section last week. This came as no surprise in the Vines household, where marmalade makes a daily appearance on the breakfast table, but the more prosaic reason was that this fine product has become a bit player in the Sino-US trade war.

The minds designing the new US tariff regime for Chinese imports decided to include marmalade in the list of 7,000 categories of Chinese products targeted for tariffs. As a mere US$12,330 worth of marmalade was exported to the United States from China last year, it is safe to say its impact on the trade war will not be decisive.

Moreover, what is described as Chinese marmalade is nothing of the kind. I write with some knowledge of this subject and can affirm that what is called Chinese marmalade is at best a sweet sticky jam.

However, the marmalade trade happens to provide a pretty good way of stepping back from all the current nonsense and considering how trade evolves and how sane people accept the evolution and savour it.

The origins of marmalade are hard to pin down, but C. Anne Wilson, author of the seminal The Book of Marmalade, believes it started as a Portuguese sweet-tasting solid quince paste. The British, who often claim founding rights, began importing marmalade in the late 15th century for use as a medicine and a sweetmeat.

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Later both the British and French developed clearer, less dense versions. The base fruits, usually oranges and lemons, had been imported to England from medieval times, forming part of the international agricultural trade that transformed English cuisine.

Other fruits, including damsons, apples, pears and peaches also made their way to England, where they were used in “marmalades” served in solid form, mainly as desserts.

By the 18th century, a new development, largely credited to the Scots, emerged with the production of a jellied orange marmalade still mainly used for desserts but now in spreadable form. It became more popular as global trade in sugar, an important ingredient, expanded.

The quick adoption of marmalade is reflected in Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management, the pioneering cookbook by Isabella Beeton, who in the late 19th century wrote about the difference between marmalades and jams, insisting that the former were made from firmer fruits while the latter were reliant on juicy berries.

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Marmalade then began spreading as a manufactured product through the British Empire, enabling Britain to (falsely) claim it had invented this preserve.

It is now exported by all manner of countries and there are even inferior versions coming out of the US. What’s happening is that marmalade has become a global product with ingredients supplied from around the world that are put together in disparate countries.

Having had the misfortune of sampling mass-produced American marmalade, a sickly sweet jellified concoction, it is easy to see why US consumers are keen to get imports.

Marmalade’s evolution and the development of the marmalade business serves as a useful proxy for the story of world trade, showing how people’s requirements change and are fulfilled by global sourcing for the best quality goods at the best price. Sourcing is also determined by geography, because some products simply do not thrive in certain climates and need to be imported.

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Trying to rebalance international trade through tariffs is largely nonsensical and at most provides a temporary respite for dying industries. The fundamental realities of supply and demand ultimately prevail and tariffs must bow to reality, but before this happens, much disruption ensues.

Meanwhile, back at the marmalade trough, may I suggest that Americans use this trade war as a timely moment to sample fine British marmalades, and the British might like to ponder what exiting the European Union means for the importation of the European citrus fruit that end up in the jars of this quintessential breakfast preserve.

Supposedly iconic national products are in fact international products and, without free trade, marmalade might never have appeared on breakfast tables … a chilling thought.

Stephen Vines runs companies in the food sector and moonlights as a journalist and a broadcaster