. . . A NATIONAL TREASURE
Salty and pungent, it has the appearance and consistency of axle grease, and smells and tastes like no other food on earth. The few Americans who have tried this British savory spread think it looks and tastes disgusting. Yet in Britain and many of its former territories, despite its unappealing appearance, it’s held in high esteem.
They call it Marmite, and it would be true to say that it’s as much a national institution as roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, or fish and chips. Babies love it, usually spread on finger-size strips of toast that are, for some reason, called 'soldiers', and kids take sandwiches spread with it to school in their Spider Man lunchboxes. I recently dug up a whole collection of recipes using the stuff. They include commonplace snacks such as Marmite, Sausage and Baked Beans, Marmite and Hummus Crumpets, Marmite and Carrot Soup, and also more ambitious if not exactly haute cuisine dishes like Marmite Chicken, Marmite and Banana Grill and – no, I’m not making it up – Marmite and Rice Crispies.
There's a national affection for Marmite in Britain that Americans, especially the ones who were brave enough to sample it, simply can’t fathom. Earlier this Year the New York Times quoted an American literary agent who recalled, “In 1961, I was on the deck of the Queen Mary when they came around with Marmite sandwiches. I literally gagged on one, and I think I even threw it overboard.”
But to millions of Britons the product’s very name conjures up homey scenes of winter teatimes with the drapes (well, we call them curtains) drawn closed. They hear the rain pelting down outside, see a roaring coal fire in the grate, and a plate of Marmite sandwiches alongside the teapot with its floral tea cozy, and willow pattern cups and saucers. Those with longer memories may recall breakfasts in the kitchen with the nanny or a maid in their early years, dipping their ‘soldiers’ into soft-boiled eggs, while Daddy sat with Mummy in the dining room and read The Daily Telegraph, tucking into tea and eggs and bacon.
The Australians have their own version of Marmite that they call Vegemite. I once tried both in a blind tasting down-under, and confess I couldn’t tell the difference. Down there they’ll swear blind that there's no comparison between the two, that Vegemite is the true product, and that Marmite is for the birds. The Aussies eat their imitative version in much the same way as we Brits do our own original product, and they regard it with equal respect.
Even at home on its own hallowed ground, Marmite is not so sacred a national treasure that it’s immune to a little caustic comment, even from the BBC. In a radio program this year, a commentator dared to say that, “viscous in consistency, Marmite is deceptively like crude oil in appearance. Indeed, this is what many would believe it to be, were it not for its list of ingredients. After all, the main ingredient in Marmite is spent brewers yeast. How on earth the inventor decided that spreading fungus on a piece of toast may in fact taste quite nice is a mystery. However, considering that it’s a by-product of the fermentation of sugars into alcohol, one theory is that the inventor was drunk, and that it probably seemed like the right thing to do at the time."
But disregard this beastly blasphemy. The important point is that Marmite tastes delicious and that, more importantly, it’s so full of good things that it must be good for you. Look at the ingredients listed on the little pot-bellied brown bottle: yeast extract, vegetable extract, niacin, thiamin and salt, which means it contains five kinds of B vitamins, including B12.
In wartime, Marmite made an important contribution to preventing vitamin deficiency diseases such as beri-beri among the armed forces, civilians and prisoners-of-war, especially in Europe, North Africa and Asia.
A while ago, along with the late Queen Mum’s, the makers of Marmite celebrated the spread’s 100th birthday amid a deluge of press coverage and hype that would have astonished but gratified their long dead founders. At about the same time, Britain’s once notorious insularity and standoffishness came to the fore when a former government minister, Tony Banks, drew the anniversary to the attention of his fellow members in the House of Commons. “We take intense satisfaction,” Banks said, “from the essential Britishness of the product, and its lack of appeal for the majority of the world’s population.”
All right, then. We may no longer be a superpower, but you have to admit that we can still tell a good thing when we see it.
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