Alimentary, My Dear
Marmite? It's a Love‑Hate Thing
By Tamia Nelson
March 16, 2010
Marmite? It's not exactly a household name, is it? At least it isn't on this side of the Pond. And what is it, exactly? Well, some Britons think it's a cultural icon on a par with Tower Bridge, Nelson's Column, and — a nod to New Britain — the Swiss Re Building (aka The Gherkin). But it's really just a sandwich spread. OK. Maybe not just a sandwich spread. For legions of true believers, Marmite is the sandwich spread, a savory confection with an unforgettable flavor that puts other spreads in the shade. Of course, not everyone is a true believer, a fact freely acknowledged by the maker, in what may be the world's least likely advertising slogan: "Marmite. Love It or Hate It." In any case, Marmite certainly has a loyal following, as well as a host of imitators — the sincerest form of corporate flattery. So I figured I'd give it try, with an eye to adding it to my backcountry pantry if it turned out that I belonged to the "Love It" crowd.
As it happens, my interest in Marmite goes back quite a ways. One of the teachers in my old high school used to spread it on bread for his lunch. This wasn't necessarily a recommendation, since the teacher in question was a bit of an oddball. In a town where everybody knew everybody else's parents (not to mention grandparents and great‑grandparents), no one knew where he came from — except that it wasn't from "around here." That was bad enough, to be sure, but it was really just the start. He also rode a bike to work, and his trousers were hemmed several inches above his ankles. Worst of all, he bought wine (French wine!) by the case. And there were reliable reports that he'd been seen attending classical concerts. The final blow? He sent his two children off to private schools. But damning as this dossier was, it didn't entirely put me off. I was something of a nonconformist myself — not too many girls my age were climbing rock cuts in their spare time — and I figured that anyone who cared so little for others' opinions might be worth closer study. Unfortunately, though, I was never assigned to any of the Marmite maverick's classes, so I didn't get a chance to ask him about the brown goo he put on his sandwiches.
Quite a lot of water has passed under a good many bridges since my school‑days, of course, but every now and again I've been reminded of my early Marmite infatuation. The stuff doesn't warrant much shelf space in stateside HyperMarts, but I occasionally run across it when I'm looking for something else. It's not a big seller. The jars I find are usually caked with dust, and the price stickers suggest one reason for this: ounce for ounce, Marmite is almost as costly as steak. Still, when I spotted a jar on a shelf in the local HyperMart recently, the temptation proved too great to resist. The time had come for…
Taking the Plunge
My motives? Well, curiosity played its part, to be sure. But I had more practical ends in mind, too. Blandness is the curse of many camp meals. And any spread that excites such strong feelings — both pro and con — certainly can't be accused of being bland. So who knows? Marmite might be just what I was looking for to liven up backcountry dishes. It's not as if I balk at strongly flavored food and drink. Here are just a few of my favorite things: Turkish coffee. Laphroaig single‑malt whisky. Garlic, both cooked and raw. Feta and Stilton and Limburger cheeses. Sulfurous mineral waters. Tisane (herbal tea) made with dried thyme. The resin‑flavored Greek wine called retsina, especially when it's served with roast lamb and rosemary.
The upshot? I dug deep into my pocket and bought a jar. It wasn't much to look at, to be honest. In fact, it was tiny — about halfway between a golf ball and a tennis ball in size. It did have a distinctive shape, though, a shape reminiscent of the earthenware casserole that the French call a…you guessed it…marmite. But the contents were even more distinctive. Immediately on opening the jar, I was assailed by a forthright aroma, as complex as it was pungent. It smelled of yeast, for one thing — not surprising, this, since Marmite is derived from a yeast extract, a brewing‑industry byproduct. But there was also an unexpectedly sweet, caramelly‑chocolatey note. Appearance and texture were equally confounding. Wikipedia describes Marmite as "a sticky, dark brown paste," and that's accurate enough, I suppose. But it doesn't convey the feel of the stuff very well. My first thought on opening the jar was of axle grease. Put this down to my having grown up in farm country, at a time when a few horse‑drawn wagons were still in use and most barns had an open tin of axle grease on a shelf somewhere.
In any event, whatever words you'd choose to describe Marmite, it makes a lasting impression, even on first acquaintance. But I wasn't about to stop with a peek and a sniff. I was going the whole hog. So I spread some of the "sticky, dark brown paste" on a hunk I tore from a handy baguette. And then I took a nibble. It was not love at first bite, I'm sorry to say, though my reaction wasn't quite as violent as that of the pigeon in this classic Marmite ad (NB YouTube video):
OK. I didn't love it. But — notwithstanding the claim in the ad — I didn't quite hate it, either. My taste test more or less confirmed what I'd sniffed out on first opening the jar: The flavor was yeasty, with a hint of caramelized sugar or burnt molasses. Not to mention salty… No, make that SALTY. There was no question of a "hint" here. I hadn't eaten anything quite so salty since my one and only serving of Newfoundland seal‑flipper pie. My tongue actually prickled. And it didn't take me long to reach the foregone conclusion. Flipper pie hadn't made it onto my regular menu, and it was pretty clear that Marmite sandwiches were going to suffer the same fate. Just to make sure, though, I also tried Marmite on a rice cake:
The outcome was never in doubt. Marmite was not destined to become my favorite spread. It wasn't even going to make my Top 100. That didn't mean it had no place in my backcountry pantry, however. Its outspoken savor made it a prime candidate for condiment status. And with this possibility in mind, I stirred half a teaspoon of Marmite into a bowl of hot creamy chicken‑flavored ramen soup, which I'd already simmered with mixed vegetables:
Things were definitely looking up. While packaged ramen certainly doesn't need any extra salt, the small quantity of Marmite I added didn't take it over the top. And it did enhance the flavor. This encouraged me to consider other ways to add Marmite to meals, and by and large, I've been pleased with the results. That's led me to alter the maker's slogan: Marmite — you may hate it as a spread, but you might still love it…
As a Condiment
In other words, if you're looking for a new weapon to win your battle of the blands, Marmite could be just what you need. It won't take up much space in your pack, and it doesn't require refrigeration. The glass jar isn't ideal for backcountry transport, I admit, but you can always decant the contents into a plastic tub. Be prepared for a bit of a workout, though. Marmite is tenacious stuff, and it doesn't much like leaving home. Then again, "squeezy" Marmite comes already packaged in plastic. (If you can find the squeezy variety on this side of the Pond, that is.) Don't expect much more from Marmite than flavor, however. True, it's rich in B‑vitamins, but unless you use a lot of it, it's not going to be a primary source. And yes, it contains salt. But while a little extra salt isn't necessarily a bad thing in hot weather, when Marmite is used only as a condiment, it won't add significant quantities of salt to your meals, either. (WARNING! Salt‑sensitive hypertensives need to think twice before adding any salt to their normal diet, even in high summer. Check with the doc first.) Nor is Marmite a meaningful source of calories. It is "100% vegetarian," though. It's even been characterized by one blogger as a "vegan superfood." And it's gluten‑free. So what's not to like? The taste, maybe. But it would be a dull world indeed if we all ate the same things, wouldn't it?
Maybe you need more reasons to give Marmite a try. Well, some trekkers in mosquito‑infested country have insisted that Marmite, eaten regularly, kept the little bloodsuckers at a respectful distance. If this is true — note the "if" — it certainly ought to interest paddlers. I've also heard it said that Marmite helps balding men re‑grow their hair, though I'm not sure if it's enough just to eat it or if you have to spread it on your scalp. In either case, I doubt that the makers would guarantee results. And lastly, some people who suffer nocturnal leg cramps claim that a teaspoon of Marmite before bed insures a good night's sleep. (Marmite has apparently been used to treat piles, too, though with what success I can't say.)
It will take medical science a while to get around to evaluating these claims, I imagine. Happily, you're free to experiment with orthodox culinary applications in the meantime. And if you discover you're firmly in the "Love It" camp, you might want to try Marmite…
- As a bouillon substitute (half a teaspoon stirred into a cup of hot water)
- As a savory dip for snacks and raw vegetables
- As a spread on bannock or journey cakes
- As a garnish on cheese slices during your next wine‑and‑cheese picnic
- On crackers
But what if, like me, you're neither a Marmite lover nor a Marmite hater? You can't stomach it taken straight, in other words, but you're keen to consider it in a supporting role. Then here are a few suggestions for your consideration:
- Add a half‑teaspoon or so to soups and stews
- Stir some into hot polenta
- Drizzle a small amount over hot ramen noodles or pasta
- Add it to rasta
- Swirl some into cheese fondue
- Smear a little onto tofu cutlets and sear in a hot skillet
- Put a small dollop on store‑bought or homemade rice cakes
- When you've emptied a jar, pour hot water inside, slosh, and use the washings as a soup or sauce enhancer
No way? No how? You bought a jar of Marmite, only to discover that you hate it even as a condiment, but you're also a "waste not, want not" sort of person and you don't want to chuck it away in the trash? What then? Well, you could…
- Smear it on your skin as a barrier against punkies (but watch out for bears!)
- Try it as carp bait
- Auction off the jar on eBay
- Give it to your local NPR or PBS station for their next fundraiser
- Stick the jar in a dim corner of a big cupboard and forget it
- Put it out on the curb under a big sign saying "FREE!"
These last suggestions were made with my tongue wedged firmly in my cheek, of course — though you're certainly welcome to give them a try. But I hope you'll decide to eat your Marmite, instead. Why should Paddington have all the fun?
Marmite? It's not yet a household word among paddlers on this side of the Pond. But it could be. Used sparingly, as a condiment rather than a spread, Marmite lends an intriguing depth of flavor to dishes that can stand a little help. This isn't a bad thing on a long trip, when the camp cook has to fight the battle of the blands every day. That said, it's a safe bet that Marmite's not going to become a mainstay of my paddling menu. You might feel differently, though. A lot of folks are wild about the stuff, and a little extra salt probably won't hurt on hot summer days when the sweat is rolling off your back. So — if you're of an experimental turn of mind — invest in a jar of Marmite and see for yourself. Will you love it or hate it? You won't know if you don't try. That's alimentary, right?
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