Marmite: How do you eat yours?

Not many subjects are as emotive as Marmite. Ed Caesar explains how an innocuous instruction on making toast provoked a furious argument on the letters pages of 'The Independent'

The State of Israel. Tony Blair's departure date. The great cyclist/motorist debate. Of late, these great mainstays of this paper's Letters page have become trifles light as air. For the newspaper's readers, there has only been one show in town, one battlefield on which to show their colours: the proper way to devour Marmite.

The origins of this flurry of correspondence - and there have been hundreds of letters and e-mails - came on 30 August. In an episode that history will remember, a piece in our Features pages had the temerity to suggest that one step to the perfect serving of Marmite on toast was to "spread a generous helping of Marmite over the butter".

Before you could say "hell-in-a-handcart", people were talking about "the end of civilisation as we know it". Who would have thought such a subject, unmeaty as it is in every respect, could unleash such a bilious torrent? What is it about this yeasty, oil-slick gloop that can exhort such extremes of feeling, such condiment-inspired incontinence? It is true that Marmite - in Britain, at least - remains wildly popular. More than 3,700 tons of Marmite are sold here every year, two thirds of which is spread on toast. That works out at 600 million pieces of Marmite and toast consumed in the UK every year.

But it is also true that, considered only in terms of taste, Marmite generates strong opinions. Some cannot live without it, some would rather eat coal. These entrenched standpoints do Marmite, as a commercial entity, no harm. And, for every celebrity acolyte - Victoria Beckham, Elton John and Peter Ustinov never travel without it - there is one ready to spoil the party. Bill Bryson, famously, staked his anti-Marmite colours to the mast with this trademark observation.

"There are certain things," wrote Bryson, "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)."

But in the past few weeks, the debate has spread and spread. The rules of the game have changed. Something has happened, to the people who eat Marmite, and to the people who do not. Marmite started life in 1902, in the blue-collar, Midlands town of Burton-upon-Trent as a by-product of the brewing industry which supported most of the town's workers. The town itself, on the border of Derbyshire and Staffordshire, bursts with civic pride. Burton has always punched above its weight, the most obvious example being when the football team, Burton Albion, gave Manchester United a fright with a 0-0 draw only last year.

But the if Marmite's origins are profoundly English, its name is not. The word, Marmite, is derived from the French marmite, meaning "large earthen cooking pot" - the vessel which appears on the front of Marmite jars today - and in which Marmite itself was first placed on the shelves more than 100 years ago.

Details of the board meeting at which this famous brand was born do not exist, but it betrays an odd lack of confidence to name a product after the vessel it arrives in, rather like calling a packet of Salt 'n' Vinegar, Foil 'n' Plastic. Either way, the earthenware pots disappeared in Marmite's infancy, to be replaced by the classic glass jar that has since taken its place in the pantheon of British design.

So Marmite is not quite as sweat and sawdust as the traditionalists would have you believe. Marmite, is, in short, a little arriviste. But tell that to the letter-writers. They have weighed in on any number of yeast-related issues: the correct accompaniment for Marmite (poached eggs and chilli anyone?); the ideal setting for a Marmite sandwich (on a boat near Mull, apparently); and alternative uses for the brown stuff (spreading over offending newspaper columnists).

Marmite has become, it seems, both a common cause and a sublime metaphor. One philosophically inclined correspondent recalled how his father taught him "to prepare Marmite on toast by thoroughly mixing a little Marmite with a pat of butter and spreading the softened mixture on to hot toast. This method ensures that the butter and Marmite are evenly distributed, that neither dominates, and that all the ingredients are enjoyed at their best. Does this method hold a lesson for other areas of life?"

But the debate that has raised the dander of most correspondents - and which might be at the heart of the present rush of nostalgia about Marmite - seems to be the merits, or otherwise, of the "squeezy bottle".

Months ago, Marmite launched a new product, a "squeeze jar" of Marmite. Despite pleading from Marmite-lovers all over the country, one of whom, on these pages, implored Unilever: "Don't do this. There are few absolutely perfect things in the world, but Marmite, surely, is one of them."

But they did it. They lowered the viscosity of their product and they stuck it in an upside-down plastic bottle. Although the traditional, glass-jar stuff is still available, the advent of the squeezy bottle was, considered many traditionalists, an abomination.And now, a few weeks on, enthusiasts of the dark brown stuff are understandably feeling threatened.

Unilever, which owns the Marmite brand, is unrepentant. "Years of frustration of trying to get that last scraping of Marmite out of the bottom of the jar are over," said a Unilever spokes-man yesterday. "[The squeezy bottle] offers the same great taste, in a more easy-to-use format. Fans will be able to spread it easily on sandwiches, drizzle it on cheese, stir it into recipes and even draw with it."

But the Unilever people are missing the point. Marmite does not have fans; it has people. And even if Marmite people could spread their Marmite on sandwiches, drizzle it on cheese, or stir it into recipes, they would not want it to be something they could do easily. No, Marmite people want the stiff lid, the tiny tub, the breadcrumbs secreted in the murky, pungent depths. They do not want to be able to finish the jar of Marmite. They do not, in short, want change.

It is for this reason, this longing for permanence, that there has been such uproar over the squeezy bottle. But it is also the reason, indirectly, that Marmite people are always telling you about their wild and wonderful culinary uses for the humble spread. If the jar of Marmite stays absolutely unchanged, then how playful, how mock-contrary, how British of us, to create Marmite Beef Wellington.

One man who is busy making a mint from this niche craze is Paul Hartley, the 100,000-selling author of The Marmite Cookbook, which contains such Marmite-infused delights as Lamb Kofte and Sicilian Scramble. Mr Hartley is a Marmite person, fiercely conservative about its shape and viscosity; wildly exuberant about its use as a culinary catalyst.

"I just love the stuff," Mr Hartley says. "I use Marmite as a condiment; to brush on vegetables when I'm cooking them; I use it in mayonnaise; I use it in vinaigrette; I put it in pasta. It's a bit like the salt and the pepper. It's a great ingredient to fuse flavours together.

"I make a haddock and artichoke chowder. I've tried it with Marmite and without Marmite. The chowder, if you get the quantity of Marmite right, is great. You can't taste the Marmite, but the haddock and the artichoke become much bigger flavours. It is completely delicious." Now Unilever suggests there is a "perfect" way to make a classic Marmite on toast. "Toast a slice of freshly baked white bread until golden brown," they say. "Apply a tasty covering of real butter (about 10g), allowing it to melt while the toast is still hot. Top your creation with about four grams of Marmite, from the tip of a knife and eat immediately, while still warm."

Again, the big corporation seems to have missed the mark. The point, if there is a point to be gleaned from the hundreds of Marmite missives the newspaper has received, is that there is no one way of doing anything with Marmite.

Marmite people spread the love in their own, unique fashion. The only thing that should never change is the thing itself, the pot-bellied, heavy, British, stolid, mucky, stubborn, salty, delicious, perfect little jar of Marmite.

Chowder with a twist

Paul Hartley's haddock and artichoke chowder - with Marmite

Serves 6

25g unsalted butter
1 small onion, finely chopped
400g Jerusalem artichokes, roughly chopped
700ml good fish stock (or fish bouillon and water)
1 teaspoon Marmite
200g natural smoked haddock, skinned and flaked
75ml double cream
Cayenne pepper
Vegetable oil for deep-frying
1 large parsnip
Handful flat-leaf parsley, chopped

Melt butter and cook three quarters of onion and half of artichokes gently for five minutes in a covered pan making sure they don't brown. Add stock and Marmite, bring to the boil and cover and simmer for about 15 minutes.

Heat the oil. You should be able to make a sufficiently deep well of vegetable oil using a wok.

Cool the mixture a little and then liquidize until puréed. Return to a clean pan and add the vegetables.

Simmer for 10 minutes until vegetables are tender. Add fish, cream and cayenne pepper, stirring gently for about five minutes.

When nearly ready, peel parsnip. Continue to use the potato peeler to cut full-length shavings and deep fry in oil pre-heated to 190C for about a minute until golden and crispy (like home-made crisps). Keep your eye on them as they'll brown quickly. Serve with parsnip crisps and parsley.

From The Marmite Cookbook by Paul Harley, Absolute Press, £7.99

News
More than 90 years of car history are coming to an end with the abolition of the paper car-tax disc
newsThis and other facts you never knew about the paper circle - completely obsolete today
News
people'I’d rather have Fred and Rose West quote my characters on childcare'
Life and Style
The new Windows 10 Start Menu
tech
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey
comedyFirst national survey reveals Britain’s comedic tastes
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Travel
Bruce Chatwin's novel 'On the Black Hill' was set at The Vision Farm
travelOne of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
Sport
footballManchester City 1 Roma 1: Result leaves Premier League champions in danger of not progressing
Arts and Entertainment
Gay and OK: a scene from 'Pride'
filmsUS film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
News
i100
Life and Style
Magic roundabouts: the gyratory system that has excited enthusiasts in Swindon
motoringJust who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Arts and Entertainment
Hilary North's 'How My Life Has Changed', 2001
booksWell it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Management Accountant

    28,000 to 32,000 per annum: Accountancy Action: Our client, a hospitality busi...

    Food and Beverage Cost Controller

    18,000 to 20,000 per annum: Accountancy Action: Our fantastic leisure client i...

    Marketing Analyst / Marketing Executive

    £20 - 24k: Guru Careers: A Marketing Analyst / Marketing Executive is needed t...

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    Day In a Page

    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
    Why do we like making lists?

    Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

    Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
    Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

    A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

    As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
    Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

    Paris Fashion Week

    Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
    Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

    Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

    One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
    10 best children's nightwear

    10 best children's nightwear

    Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
    Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

    Manchester City vs Roma

    Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
    Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

    Trouble on the Tyne

    Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?