Ma Kelly's birthday is next month, and, for once, we have a gift idea well in advance. Husband Patrick wants to send his mom marmalade. She's been a connoisseur of jams and marmalades since she was old enough to toast bread. Her breakfast is always the same: Irish breakfast tea, a soft-boiled egg in an eggcup, and bread or muffin with a fruity spread on it. Patrick is driven to find the best marmalades to send her.

So last week I hit the stores -- Vons, Trader Joe's, Henry's, and the specialty store All Things Bright and British in La Mesa, snatching up whatever orange marmalade they sold. "Ooooo, gotta be a taste test," said the cashier at Vons, eyeing my cache of jars. She added, "I like to put cream cheese or ricotta cheese on the bread under the marmalade. It kind of cuts the bitterness. The dairy gives it a milder taste."

The saleslady at All Things helped me sift through her selection. "Some of these are made from Dundee, which is a name of an orange," she explained. "Others are made from Seville oranges, which are very popular oranges. We also sell the MaMade Prepared Seville Oranges [$7.99 for 850 grams] so you can make your own marmalade. But you need to have loads of jars; it makes six pounds of marmalade," she laughed.

Six pounds of marmalade... what would I do with that much?

"Well, we use it, of course, on crumpets," she continued, "or toast or scones. People spread it on pancakes, and some use it as a marinade on their baked chicken."

I'm all for homemade, but six pounds was a bit much to send to Mom. So I headed home with a few more jars. Don't tell my mother-in-law, but nobody in this Kelly home likes marmalade. So I invited over some taster replacements. My parents love the sweet concoction, as does chum Bernice and old friend Canisius. So we all got together and, over a spot of tea and some bread and scones, we started spreading.

Everyone hated our first sample, Vons California Style Sweet Orange Marmalade. ($3.34 for 18 ounces) "Doesn't have a lot of orange bitterness," said Canisius.

"Just tastes like sugar, the kind of sweetness that shoots up into the brain," continued Bernice.

Tropical Orange Marmalade bombed as well ($2.99 for 32 ounces). "It barely spreads on the scone," complained my mom. "Tastes like candied fruit you put in fruit cakes," grimaced Canisius.

The tasting looked grim. Smuckers Simply 100% Fruit, ($2.99 for 10 ounces) and Knott's Berry Farm Pure Marmalade ($3.89 for 16 ounces) tasted only slightly better, and both separated into unwieldy chunks when we tried to spread it.

Safeway Select Orange Marmalade ($3.39 for 23 ounces) tasted like sweet and sour sauce. "This is bitter -- the wrong kind of bitter," winced Canisius.

"It's not balanced," added Bernice, "a lot of sweet and a lot of bitter without that blended taste."

Bonne Maman Orange Marmalade ($4.29 for 13 ounces) and King Kelly Orange Marmalade ($3.65 for 18 ounces) both restored hope in the citrus preserve. "The Bonne Maman has a long finish; the flavor does not dissipate like these others that we have had," noticed Bernice.

"More of a pucker factor to it," joked Canisius.

"With a name like King Kelly, it better be good," jested Bernice. "Though the peel is thick, it's very tender, and I love the texture of it."

"A nice balance between bitter and sweet," said Mom.

"I'd buy this for the esthetically pleasing jar," I added, caressing the curve of the potbelly jar. "This will be the shape you'll be if you eat too much King Kelly," said Patrick, holding up the pear-shaped jar.

The last two jars from Vons were Robertson's Scotch and Robertson's Original English Thick Cut (both $4.69 for 12 ounces). The English Cut didn't pass bar. "A little overwhelming with the fat chunks of peel," Bernice said. "I can almost taste the peel in the sinuses," she added.

The Scotch variety fared better. "Very long thin peels," said Mom, "and it has a mild spice flavor in it."

We moved on to the two Henry's buys; St. Dalfour Orange Marmalade ($2.99 for 10 ounces) and Cascadian Farm Sweet Orange Marmalade ($3.29 for 10 ounces). Both were winners, though the Frenchmade St Dalfour received oos and ahs. "Not too sweet, with a lot of grapefruit flavor," commented Canisius.

No one at the table cared for the white jarred James Keiller & Son Dundee Orange Marmalade from Trader Joe's ($3.29 for one pound). "Too grainy," was all Bernice would say about it.

Finally we dove into the jars from the All Things Bright and British Shoppe. The Robertson's Dundee Orange Marmalade ($4.99 for one pound) carried an over-powering sweetness and was quickly dispensed into the losers pile.

"If you don't like marmalade, you'd like this one," said Canisius, licking a spoonful of Robertson's Golden Shredless ($4.49 a pound). "I like a little substance in it; without the peels, it's not marmalade," grimaced Dad. "It tastes like sweet orange sugar."

The Duerr's Traditional Fine Cut Marmalade ($3.99 for a pound) was forgettable, but the Crosse & Blackwell Orange Marmalade ($4.99 for 12 ounces) was a winner. "A nice balance of sweet, orange, and bitter," remarked Bernice.

Old Time Irish Fine Cut Orange Marmalade ($4.99 for a pound) was another favorite with its subtle orange flavor. "The Irish don't have orange trees, do they?" asked Dad, wolfing down his Derby Scone ($4.19 for six scones at the British Shoppe).

With my tasters reaching marmalade-overload point, we opened the last two jars, both Frank Cooper's brand: Fine Cut Oxford Seville Orange Marmalade and Vintage Oxford Coarse Cut Seville Orange Marmalade ($6.99 a pound). The Fine Cut was rated mediocre at best, and the Vintage Coarse Cut tasted excessively bitter. "It doesn't really taste like marmalade," noticed Mom.

"Tastes a bit like molasses," added Canisius.

I guess we will be sending Ma Kelly a jar of King Kelly, St. Dalfour, Crosse & Blackwell, Cascadian Farm, Robertson's Scotch and the Old Time Irish marmalade.

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