The Weasel: Tell 'em about the honey, Mummy

For those over 45, `smoothie' calls to mind Michael Aspel rather than a drink

IT'S THAT time of year again, when Mrs W spends hours involved in a mysterious feat of transmutation involving a couple of bubbling cauldrons. Sustained only by copious infusions of Blend 37 and Radio 4, she works unremittingly at her alchemical craft. Eventually, amid a vast cumulus of vapour, she decants the resulting stream of pure gold. Or, to be more accurate, golden shred. As the day progresses, Mrs W's temper reflects the rolling boil of her marmalade. "Horrible job," she is prone to remark. "The very thought makes me feel sticky between the fingers."

Applauded by recipients, her efforts have contributed in a small way to a startling change in the nation's buying habits. For the first time, as The Grocer announced the other day, sales of honey have outstripped those of marmalade in value terms. Most probably, this is due less to middle-classes ladies boiling up vast quantities of Seville oranges with preserving sugar than to the increasing unhipness of marmalade in the eyes of the buying public. Apparently, 80 per cent of marmalade is bought by people over 45. It may be hard to believe but Tiptree Tawny is not the spread de choix among the hip-hop crowd.

Moreover, marmalade is time-sensitive in a way that doesn't apply to honey. Those in the know insist that "90 per cent of marmalade is eaten between 6am and midday". This leaves just 10 per cent who will enjoy the illicit frisson of peel in the afternoon or, conceivably, prior to 6am. Honey can, however, be legitimately consumed at any time of day. "It's not just a sweet spread," declared a honey magnate on the Today programme. "You might have it with yogurt or a smoothie." This again indicates honey's youthful appeal. For the over 45s, "smoothie" customarily calls to mind Michael Aspel rather than a drink.

Someone has been doing a highly effective PR job for honey. You don't hear many references to "marmalade blondes" or hear people say, "Hi, marmalade, I'm home." The relative status of honey and marmalade is reflected in the volumes devoted to them that I found in Waterstones. Honey is represented by the titillatingly entitled Covered in Honey by Mani Niall (Rodale, pounds 12.99), which contains recipes such as seared portobello mushrooms over grilled radicchio with buckwheat honey. Marmalade is tackled by the pleasingly unvarnished title The Marmalade Book by C Anne Wilson (Prospect, pounds 9.99), which proposes such homely fare as spicy marmalade and rhubarb crumble.

Unless you count Van Morrison's Tupelo Honey and John Lennon's marmalade skies, there has not been a great deal of celeb endorsement for either of the two sweeties. The late Barbara Cartland insisted that honey had some vaguely mystical restorative properties, though the meringue-like appearance of this most prolific novelist was scarcely a great advertisement. James Bond swung both ways. In From Russia With Love, we learn that he was a devotee of both Cooper's Vintage Oxford marmalade and Norwegian heather honey from Fortnum's. No wonder the deadly agent was packed off to a health farm by M.

Of course, the condiments are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the word "marmalade" ultimately derives from a Greek treat of quinces preserved in honey called melomeli. The Portuguese word for preserved quince was marmelada, which we borrowed for our breakfast dollop. Honey and marmalade have something else in common. Both these forms of concentrated energy involve a lot of hard work. Someone has worked out that one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey equals the entire life's work of one bee. A glance at my flaked-out marmalade-maker suggested that Mrs W felt a profound kinship with her honey-producing rivals.

MOVING FROM the spread to the spread-upon, it is gratifying to report success in a long-running campaign of the Weasel. In 2000, I mentioned that bread made in a Belgian-based chain called Le Pain Quotidien was the best I had ever eaten. Every time I visited Ghent with Mrs W, I brought back a Pain Quotidien sourdough loaf. My only complaint was that though the chain had four branches in Paris and three in New York, there was no sign of one in the UK. When were we going to be given our daily bread?

At last, five years on, the Weasel's cri de coeur has been answered. Pain Quotidien has at last opened in London. With a long refectory table in the dining area, the pleasingly austere outlet resembles a monastery on Marylebone High Street. They were still putting the finishing touches to it when I met the company's lively and engaging boss Alain Coumont last week. A tremendous grinding noise from the basement reminded me of a Woody Allen film set about bank robbers who use a cookie store as a front for their excavations - but what was its name? "Small Time Crooks," said Mr Coumont, who knows about more than bread.

Pain Quotidien, 72-75 Marylebone High Street, London W1 (020-7486 6154)

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