Cumquat Marmalade at Tét – Chúc Mùng Năm Mới
Yesterday I made my first 2019 batch of cumquat marmalade. Our cumquat tree is the one citrus tree in our garden which does really well. It must get the perfect combination of light and moisture and every February it becomes laden with fruit. Thus begins the annual harvesting for marmalade. Every time I make a batch of jam it behaves differently – and it almost never sets on the first go. I have had lots of helpful hints from friends and I treasure my Women’s Weekly Preserves cookbook but I’ve decided jam making is more of an art than a science.
To start with it all depends on the amount of pectin in the fruit. Now this summer has been a particularly dry one in our neck of the woods and although the tree has benefited from daily waterings from the spear pump, nothing beats a good soaking of heaven sent rain. So my fruit had hardly any seeds. I tried compensating with adding the juice and remaining whole lemon to the pot and reduced the added water – yes the recipe says to add water to the fruit.
I usually set aside a whole day for this exercise which begins by chopping up the fruit into thin slivers and removing the seeds. These go into a muslin bag and are cooked with fruit. Measure the volume and add the equivalent amount of sugar and then watch it bubble away. The smell of the fruit cooking wafts a wonderful citrus balm around the whole house.
But before I tell you any more about my jam making – and my cumquat jam is becoming something of a legend, so I know it tastes good – I want to tell you about Tét, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year holiday and cumquat trees. My first visit to Viet Nam in 2009 was to run some training programs for nutrition academics as part of my university’s international activities. In discussing when we could hold a followup meeting, elaborately translated back and forth by interpreters, we were advised against having it too close to Tét. It was explained, Tét is a bit like the Christmas holidays in Australia or Thanksgiving in North America – everyone goes home to their families and no one is around. Shops close and it seems the whole of Viet Nam comes to a halt.
I returned to Viet Nam a couple of times the next year but it wasn’t until 2011 that a meeting was held in Hanoi the week before the Tét celebrations began. It was the January that Brisbane experienced one of its worst floods and I had been unable to obtain a visa through the official university channels so had purchased one online. Thinking this might be a bit shonky, I had asked my colleague in Saigon to meet me at the airport to verify my credentials. The wonderful Minh Hanh was there as I unexpectedly waltzed through immigration. Her first words were ‘We are taking you on a journey through Saigon by night so you can experience Tét!’
Saigon traffic is nothing if chaotic with motor scooters zooming along footpaths and weaving around larger vehicles. On this occasion I was spellbound by the fabulous street decorations. Huge pillars lit in red and yellow, the colours for luck and vast flower decorations massed at shopping centre entrances.
Next morning in daylight, the motor scooters carrying their usual human cargo including families with small children also had huge cumquat trees in pots attached at the back. My Hanoi colleague took us international visitors to give thanks at a temple and later we stood near a large cumquat tree representing fertility and fruitfulness in the coming year. We wished each other Chúc Mùng Năm Mới – Happy New Year.
People in Viet Nam make cumquat sauce not marmalade and I reflected on that as I poured the scalding jam into the recycled jars – for the second time.
So as I wish my friends Chúc Mùng Năm Mới in the Year of the Pig, I hope my marmalade will signify fruitfulness and good luck to all who taste it in 2019.