A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Thursday, 9 June 2011

A Passion For Food: Marmite (4)



There are certain things that you have to be British, or at least older than me, or possibly both, to appreciate: skiffle music, salt-cellars with a single hole and Marmite (an edible yeast extract with the visual properties of an industrial lubricant). BILL BRYSON

There are some things I desperately miss about England while travelling for longish periods abroad: The Guardian, fish and chips, Radio 4, green grass after rain ... and Marmite. You probably won't be surprised to hear my love of Marmite stems from early childhood. On cold, wintry evenings, as my sister and I sat reading before a coal fire, mum would bring us mugs of steaming hot Marmite with little pieces of soggy white bread floating on top. Even now, if I want the ultimate comfort drink on a chilly night, it's to Marmite I turn. Its savoury aroma and salty taste bring back the sensations and emotions of childhood in an instant, just as that famous madeleine cake dipped in tea provoked Proust's involuntary memories of the past.

Funnily enough, when Carmen and I married, the first house we bought lay just a few miles from the Marmite Food Extract Company's factory in Burton-on-Trent - itself within spitting distance of the Bass Brewery. Their proximity to each other was no accident: Marmite, a yeast extract, is a by-product of the beer-making industry. Later our first child, Anna, was born in Burton - and Nicholas too, a little after that. You could therefore imaginatively argue that both have beer and Marmite as interlocking strands in their dietary DNA - though it's shaken out that Anna likes Marmite not beer, and Nick quite the opposite. I vividly remember pacing the hospital car park, with the smack of yeast and hops in the air, worrying about the small son to whom my wife had just given birth (he was lying in an incubator, after arriving as a 'blue baby' with the umbilical cord wrapped twice around his neck).

'Marmite' is French for a large, earthenware cooking pot, and Marmite was once produced in a smaller version of such a pot. Nowadays it comes in glass jars, but on each jar there's a picture of the original earthenware container. I tend to spread it with butter on toast, and with cheese on crackers and crispbreads. I also like to add a spoonful to some soups, stews and gravies - a great alternative to umami. And, perversely, I even like it on slightly sweeter foods like scones, malt loaf or Lincolnshire plum bread.

But whatever your feelings are about this sticky, dark brown elixir, this salty, savoury, tongue-tingling paste, this bitter, malty, spicy, black balm, this gooey, yeasty spread which is half solid, half liquid and thick as molasses  - and people tend to love it or hate it, with no half-measures -  just never be tempted by its antipodean rival, Vegemite. It's a pale imitation of the real thing and ain't half as good! 

15 comments:

Arija said...

Ha, I se an argument looming there, Vegemite is anything but a 'paler' version, it is thicker and blacker and makes a wonderful broth and is otherwise used as
a spread on one's morning toast. I know a builder who for thirty years has had Vegemite sandwiches for lunch and would not have it any other way.
We were devastated when, while living in Canada, we could only get your thin imitation.
Now I am even more devastated since I am not allowed salt so I can't have my weekly Vegemite fix and have to take a Vitamin B supplement instead. It may do the same thing but certainly not to my depr(a)ived taste buds.

Dan Gurney said...

I have never tried Marmite. Your post about it makes me curious enough to put some in my cart Gould I ever see it for sale around here.

Comfort foods nourish us in so many ways,especially the ones we happily associate with our parents. Emotionally, physically, spiritually, even psychologically--fully like nothing else can. I enjoyed your post.

fireweed said...

I didn't grow up with Marmite but fell instantly in love with it at first taste. I love Marmite on toast and always add Marmite to my gravies . . . though I could do without the floaty soggy bread beverage method of consuming it; that's the kind of quirky and disturbing culinary anomaly that's given English cuisine a bad name for all these years!

Marmite is only sold in tiny jars at extortionate prices here in Canada, usually years old and gathering dust at the back of a supermarked shelf, so whenever we go to England we come back with as many jumbo sized jars as we can fit in our luggage. Vegemite isn't even the same league. Some Australian roommates introduced me to it pre-Marmite and I thought it tasted like mould.

emilene said...

I've eaten Marmite all my life but never had all the facts! Thanks - interesting to know a bit more about where it comes from! I agree with you - you either love it or hate it! It's also part of my childhood memories, as is rooibos tea and Mrs Balls chutney, all typical South African favourites in the kitchen.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Marmite on Lincolnshire plum bread??? Now that is taking things too far Robert. Love it on toast though.

Ruth said...

Well blow me down. My nephew brought Vegemite back from Australia a couple years ago, but I didn't try it. Phew! Good thing. You make me want to try Marmite though. The images and smells from your story of your son's birth time add much poignancy.

Grace said...

I've tried it, but don't remember what it tasted like. I ate it with tofu when I was vegan to try and replicate a more meaty flavour (doesn't work). The hubby thought it was gross, and the last time I lifted up a jar from the grocery store shelf, he looked at me with a mixed expression of desperation and disgust--I didn't buy it.

I'd make a comment about your choice of comforting beverage, but we all have a weird food cravings:)

Rachel Fox said...

So far this trip we've bought marmite in Niagara and then in San Francisco. We can't progress without it!
x

Caroline Gill said...

I had Marmite for lunch on my roll today!

Back in the 1960s we used to grow cress (and sometimes mustard) on blotting paper, ready to harvest and add to our Marmite sandwiches. It was the perfect complement. These days I usually have Marmite with wild rocket.

I have always enjoyed Twiglets, too (and Cheeselets). When I lived in Kent, we would sometimes pass the Peek Freans factory on our train journeys. It all seems a long time ago ...

pilgrimpace said...

Bovril

Winnie said...

Hello! I found you on Bouncing Bertie's Blog and couldn't resist coming to read the Marmite post.

I live in Burton-on-Trent. The smell of beer and yeast was VERY stong in the air this morning.

There's a new company set-up in the town called the Bespoke Dog Baker and they make My Mate dog biscuits with Marmite and cheese in. I had some this week and they are GORGEOUS. I blogged about them earlier in the week.

My folks also like their Bovril at half-time when they go to watch Burton Albion play.

Val said...

i am definitely on the marmite team; love marmite on buttered toast. Even better add sliced tomato and sprinkle with black pepper. ok i'm off to the fridge now

George said...

While I would follow you across any path that traverses England, Robert, I have long questioned whether I would be able to follow you down the Marmite path. With yet another persuasive article, however, I may be inclined to bring home a jar from my trip this summer. I'm looking for a new adventure and Marmite could be a good place to start.

The Solitary Walker said...

That's 7 for, 2 against, 3 willing to try, and an enigmatic 'Bovril' comment, then! I think the yeas have it.

ksam said...

Ah well, weighing in a tad late, as I've been walk about....

Marmite on "soldiers" dipped in soft boiled eggs! Ohhhhhh (make that a totally orgasmic moan ok!)

Hmmm...no eggs...ok tomorrow morning it is!