Jason Goodwin: Pandas, Paddington and how to start a diplomatic incident over the origins of marmalade

Our columnist receives an invitation to a rather swish reception – and ends up putting his foot in it.

Diplomacy takes many different forms. Gunship was the sort used by Palmerston when British interests or British citizens were under threat. China more recently engaged in ping-pong diplomacy with Taiwan and its panda diplomacy, if you remember, helped the Maoist state inch its way back into the international fold: two years after Mao gave a couple of pandas to Nixon, Ted Heath got Chia-Chia and Ching-Ching.

To this day, every giant panda born in any zoo – a rare occurrence – remains the property of the Chinese government. That’s diplomatic hardball under all the soft fur.

The latest thing is marmalade diplomacy. The Marmalade Awards are held each March at Dalemain in Cumbria, raising money for hospice care, and there are thousands of entries from all over Britain and beyond. I may say that my own Ottoman marmalade, made with ouzo and star anise, was Highly Commended in 2017.

Judges taste marmalades from 100 counties and 30 foreign countries. Last year, a Japanese home marmalade maker, Seiko Ninomiya, received a Double Gold, which prompted the departure of a high-level British delegation to help the Japanese establish a marmalade festival of their own, modelled on Dalemain.

This is the second international marmalade festival it has inspired, the first being in south Australia, where they grow their own oranges. As, interestingly, do the Japanese: smaller, sweeter, but a similar fruit to a Seville, which cuts well and keeps a very good colour.

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The Japanese festival will be at Yawatahama, where the fruit groves run down the hills to the sea, and, the other day, the mayor of Yawatahama and his team attended a marmalade function, held at the Japanese embassy in Piccadilly.

A dozen primary-school children, with their teacher, had made the journey from Penrith by train and they cheerfully sang a marmalade song, which the mayor promised would be sung, in English, by the children of Yawatahama.

‘I got the story from the writer Fay Weldon, who knows everything about everything and has been on Desert Island Discs twice’

As we nibbled on delicious little circles of dried orange, the sort of combination of orange crisp and candied orange that only the Japanese could achieve, the ambassador made an amusing speech, expressing his delight to be talking marmalade rather than trade deals for a change.

He didn’t actually say that Japanese marmalade makers were gearing up to wipe the floor with the British and the Aussies for a second year running, but you could read the unspoken message in his eyes. We shook hands. I congratulated him on his speech.

‘I expect you know,’ I hazarded, ‘the origin of the word marmalade?’

‘Not at all,’ he replied, his face creasing with diplomatic interest.

So I told him. I got the story from the writer Fay Weldon, who knows everything about everything and has been on Desert Island Discs twice.

‘Mary, Queen of Scots was imprisoned by Elizabeth,’ I began. The ambassador nodded, so I thought it was all right. ‘Mary could get very depressed, which would make her ill, so her cook – who was a Frenchman, like so many of her retainers – would make her a sweet dish, to cheer her up. He used sugar and bitter oranges and he called it Ailing Mary, or Marie Malade.’

‘Ma’malade,’ the ambassador echoed. ‘Marmalade!’

It was, to be frank, the only shot in my locker and I thought I had done quite well, but the marmalade people were furious. Months of patient diplomacy had been put in jeopardy. If the ambassador were to think that marmalade was actually French, it would take at least the immediate release of Paddingtons 3 and 4 to put things right. The Chinese know best, really: giant pandas don’t talk.