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
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
football
Sport
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
News
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
film
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
News
people
News
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
life
News
Tovey says of homeless charity the Pillion Trust : 'If it weren't for them and the park attendant I wouldn't be here today.'
people
Sport
Rhys Williams
commonwealth games
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

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Day In a Page

    Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

    The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

    What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
    Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

    Finding the names for America’s shame

    The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
    Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

    Inside a church for Born Again Christians

    As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
    Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
    Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

    Incredible survival story of David Tovey

    Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little