food in the arts






Marmite - too

As the world’s countries become more international – and homogenised – and as computers propel its citizens into cyberspace, nations grow more deeply resolved to cling fiercely to their cultural identities.

Hardly surprising, then, when famous old British brands such as Marmite celebrate their centenary, odes should be written and hats thrown into the air, with the same degree of joy accompanying the birth of a first-born.

Most of us born post-war fondly remember being regularly fed Marmite soldiers for breakfast. Those not reared on this tasty offering should know that Marmite soldiers are pieces of toast or plain buttered bread cut into strips and spread with a thin layer of Marmite. One of the standard parent-approved games to play with Marmite soldiers was to ‘dunk’ them into the yolk of a soft-boiled egg.

Today’s generation are probably much more likely to indulge in the frivolous pastime of Marmite Beating, like fan Peter Kingsland, who told John Peel hosting a BBC Radio 4’s Home Truths programme that what you have to do is place a small dollop of marmite on the side of your breakfast plate and gently beat it with a knife until it turns from brown to light brown and eventually to white. ‘Oh yes it does,’ he assured him, in case he thought it was a hoax.

However, he warned that ‘this is an activity only to be undertaken as a student or if you are detained at Her Majesty's Pleasure for some considerable time, as it literally takes hours to reach the ultimate goal of turning your marmite white!’ Apparently, there is also a Marmite Beaters Club for people who had achieved the requisite shade of white.

The same addiction to Marmite was evidenced by Paul Ridout, a British backpacker kidnapped in India by Kashmiri separatists in 1994. The first thing he did after arriving home was to eat some Marmite on toast. ‘It was pretty good. It's just one of those things you can’t get out of the country and it's all you can think about,’ he told The Guardian. 

What is it about this dark brown sludge that induces such love – or, it must be said, loathing, because there are as many people who hate the stuff, as adore it? It’s certainly a marketing coup for Unilever, which manages to sell 23.5 million pots a year of what is merely spent yeast - used by brewers to ferment sugars into alcohol - and has also spawned a variety of imitators worldwide, like Australia, which has its own devotees of Vegemite and Promite.

Firstly, Marmite is good for you. The discovery of vitamins in 1912 did much to boost its popularity.

It has a high natural B-vitamin content (prevents anaemia), as well as thiamin, riboflavin (healthy skin and enzyme regulation), niacin (both for energy) and folic acid (important during pregnancy to help prevent spina bifida in unborn infants) and so can form a reliable part of the everyday family diet. It is also approved by the Vegetarian Society as being 100 per cent vegetarian.

Secondly, it is versatile. As well as being enjoyed as a tasty savoury spread on toast or bread, a teaspoon of Marmite can be added to soups, casseroles, and almost any savoury food to impart a rich flavour.

It also has excellent storage properties - large jars will last years after opening without going off.

Not until Louis Pasteur's time were the secrets of living yeast unlocked. A German chemist named Liebig discovered that the yeast waste left over from brewing beer could be easily digested and made into a concentrate, resulting in a protein-rich paste with a more or less ‘meaty’ flavour. So Marmite is actually a European, not British, invention! But for once, the Brits were the first to make it commercially viable.

The yeast extract used in British Marmite comes from breweries in the Burton-on-Trent area. Burton has been the home of Marmite since the patent was first acquired in 1902 and the Marmite Food Extract Company Limited was born. That same year Edward VII was crowned.                                        

It is thought that Marmite is named after marmite, a French stockpot or cooking pot, similar to the one pictured on the front of the jar. In French, it is pronounced ‘mar-meet’. Alternatively, the product may have been named after a famous French soup, Petite Marmite.

The spread was sold in small earthenware pots from the outset, but towards the end of the 1920s, plans were drawn up to switch to glass jars with metal lids.

By the outbreak of the First World War, Marmite was an established brand, recognised for its nutritious properties as an essential food supplement. It was therefore ideal for troops serving overseas to combat the outbreak of beri-beri and other deficiency diseases. At the outbreak of the Second World War, the Marmite brand again went into battle, and on the home front housewives were encouraged to spread it thinly and to 'use it sparingly just now'.

In the 1950s, after 50 years of selling Marmite, the company was justly able to claim that it was a product handed down from generation to generation. The advertising theme at this time focused on the benefits for children.

By now, Marmite had reached cult status, aptly recognised by the outcry when the jar lid was upgraded from metal to plastic in 1984. The company bowed to popular demand.

In 1999, Marmite was despatched to soldiers in the Kosovo conflict after the factory in Burton received a letter begging for Marmite to boost morale among the troops.

Susan Wolk - first published in PURE Magazine 2002


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