My mate Marmite


IN a previous column I waxed lyrical about the joy of anchovies, expecting a deluge of opprobrium. It never arrived, with most readers sharing my enthusiasm for the little salty fish and its by-products. So let’s see what the reaction is to the most divisive foodstuff of all, one which has come to be a byword for ‘love it or hate it’.

I refer, m’lud, to Marmite, that sticky dark-brown paste which adorns much of the nation’s breakfast toast, to the disgust of those who abhor its unique saline, concentrated flavour.

The story of Marmite begins in the late 19th century when a German scientist, Justus Freiherr von Liebig, discovered that the waste product from yeast used in brewing beer could be made into a meaty-flavoured paste which was completely vegetarian. He also produced bouillon, a meat extract which kept well in jars without needing refrigeration. This eventually became the product known as Oxo.

In 1902 the Marmite Food Extract Company was formed in Burton upon Trent, two miles from the Bass brewery which had been there since 1777. Yeast is a single-cell fungus originally isolated from the skin of grapes, used in brewing, winemaking and baking since ancient times. I have read somewhere that the yeast Bass used was descended from the original batch employed since its inception, endlessly reproducing itself right up to the present time.

The waste product from brewing was transported to the Marmite factory, where salt, enzymes and water were added to the slurry before it was simmered for several hours then poured into vats ready for bottling.

The product was an instant hit and within five years a second factory had to be built in Camberwell Green, south London. Marmite was given a huge boost with the discovery of vitamins. It was found to be a rich source of vitamin B, deficiency of which was responsible for the condition beriberi which afflicted British troops during the Great War. They were subsequently issued with Marmite as part of their rations. In the 1930s the folic-acid-rich product was used to treat anaemia in Bombay mill workers, and malnutrition during a malaria epidemic in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka.

Such is Marmite’s global popularity that nowadays 50,000 tons a year of brewer’s yeast is delivered through the factory gates. According to the excellent Marmite Museum, ‘most of it comes from the local Bass breweries as well as Marston’s and Coors around the Burton area, but so much of it is needed they are having to collect from further afield and can never be sure what strains of the yeast slurry they are going to get due to the different beers they are brewing at that particular time. Due to this, not every batch of Marmite is exactly the same, only fractionally different, but a keen palate can taste it.

‘Customers are fickle characters and Marmite cannot fluctuate too much from the original recipe, hence the staff have to ensure that the basic ingredients for Marmite are perfect, and only then the secret ingredient is added. It’s a closely guarded secret, and only a handful of people know what is in this recipe. Once the Master Blender (St John Skelton, who has worked in the plant for over 40 years) has passed the paste in the quality taste test, it is warmed to 40 degrees which is the optimum temperature for the Marmite to be a runnier consistency to pump via to the production line to the final part of the process – filling the jars.’

The product was originally supplied in earthenware containers (you can see one herebut since the 1920s has come in glass jars with a label showing a picture of a marmite, or French cooking pot.

Australians prefer their own yeast spread, Vegemite, but I think ours is better.

In 1990, Marmite Ltd, which had been taken over by Bovril, was bought by a firm which became Best Foods Inc in 1998. Best Foods merged in 2000 with Unilever, which now owns the Marmite name.

These days you can buy all manner of Marmite products, including jigsaws, peanut butter, crisps, nuts – even chocolate. The spread itself has gone through many incarnations including extra-strong versions, Guinness, champagne and, for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012, a special edition called Ma’amite. There is a secretive fan club called the Marmarati, whose members must swear the following oath:

I hereby and hereon solemnly swear on celery, yeast extract, riboflavin and vitamin B12 to keep the following oath and agreement.

I promise to do my duty to King, Country and Marmite.

I swear to be faithful and bear true allegiance to the Marmarati.

I will defend the ebony elixir against all conspiracies, protect its distinctive flavour and honour its orb-like jar.

I will reject any second-rate pretenders.

I promise to spread my dark and sticky mistress throughout the land, as well as on toast.

And finally I swear never, ever to consort with members of the Marmaladi.

Given the bizarre worldview and bonkers politics of the Guardian, it never ceases to amaze me how often I find interesting articles about food, music and television on its website.

Here is a leader column from 2006:

‘When it comes down to basics it is really nothing more than an amalgam of sugar, salt, herbs, spices and vitamins with brewer’s yeast. Millions of people can’t stand it, yet millions absolutely swear by it. What other 100-year-old product has bobbysoxing websites devoted to it with people writing lines like “I want to be buried in a Marmite jar . . .  oh God, I luv Marmite”. That was someone from Denmark. Another drooling addict from Spain said he would like to work in the Marmite factory 24 hours a day and asked whether he would be paid in Marmite.

‘To others who haven’t been inducted into the fraternity, Marmite is a totally mysterious apparition from a parallel universe inhabited by things with names such as Fray Bentos, Bisto and Camp Coffee. They are amazed that people, otherwise of sound mind, are addicted to it. But both sides would join together to congratulate Unilever Bestfoods on the longevity of a product that has been manufactured almost unchanged for 104 years. Unchanged that is, until now.

‘Marmite has announced the biggest innovation in its history. There is to be a new upside-down squeezy version making it easier to spread while preventing butter and crumbs on the knife from contaminating it. This will doubtless divide a new generation into those who love it and those who hate it while sales go marching on.

‘What then is the real secret of Marmite? If we knew that we would put it in a bottle and sell it ourselves.’

There will be more Marmite material to come – including a selection of recipes.

Old jokes’ home

I got home and the phone was ringing. I picked it up, and said: ‘Who’s speaking, please?’ And a voice said: ‘You are.’

A PS from PG

Contenting myself, accordingly, with a gesture of loving sympathy, I left the room. Whether she did or did not throw a handsomely bound volume of the Works of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, at me, I am not in a position to say. I had seen it lying on the table beside her, and as I closed the door I remember receiving the impression that some blunt instrument had crashed against the woodwork, but I was feeling too pre-occupied to note and observe.

PG Wodehouse: Right Ho, Jeeves


3 Replies to “My mate Marmite”

  1. There is a New Zealand version of Marmite (the sort that Monica Galetti sometimes uses in her dishes) – but it’s nothing like the UK original. For a start, it has sugar in it! I have never tried it to see how it compares to the proper thing.

    New Zealand Marmite
    Yeast Extract – Ingredients:
    Yeast, sugar, salt, mineral salt (potassium chloride), colour (caramel III), corn maltodextrin, mineral (iron), vitamins (niacin, thiamin, riboflavin, folate, B12), herbs, spices.

  2. Marmite is sublime. Need I say more? OK, I will – the Champagne version was, for me, the bestest. That aside, straight up Marmite will always triumph over lesser adversaries ie Vegemite. ‘Tis true.

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