I grew up with Marmite. My Mum used to produce it for breakfast and tea. Hot buttered toast – the big step kind of bread, carved in the kitchen, nothing mass-produced in plastic bags in those days – with lashings of Marmite. At breakfast it came along with a vast plate of fried bread, fried eggs and bacon and coffee made with milk (a kind of 1950s version of a latte, I suppose), so huge that by the time I got to primary school, I needed to sleep. I did once try to bribe my post-war teachers at the Cedars Preparatory School in Maidstone with my sweet rations. It didn't work. But back home in the evening, I would settle down at 17 Bower Mount Road to watch Roy Rogers or Gene Autry or Hopalong Cassidy while Peggy prepared a huge plate of hot buttered toast with, yes, lashings of Marmite.
I never really discovered why this horrible-looking substance was so addictive. At my first boarding school, they didn't serve Marmite. We were given scummy grey porridge with orange-coloured sugar and plate-fulls of Spam – younger readers may consult older readers as to what this was – and heaps of potato made with powder. But parents would sometimes sneak us a jar of Marmite; it would be pounced on with all the enthusiasm of inmates receiving a Red Cross parcel at Stalag Luft III. Maybe it was the silky taste, the feeling that you were getting every juice that ever existed in food, thick and just awaiting its bed of runny butter on the toast that I always insisted had to be burned near-black.
Some things don't taste as good as they smell. Coffee, for example, is never as good as its fragrance. The same goes for fish and most fruit (with the exception of strawberries) and this probably applies to all vegetables. Soup tastes better than it smells. So do cigars. I remember when I first smelled a cigar. It was in the foyer of the old Grand Hotel in Lille. Arriving from rationed Britain, it was exotic, like the beginning of the Orient (which I later identified was a little further south and east, somewhere near Lebanon). But Bill and Peggy had forgotten to bring a jar of Marmite to France. So there we were, stooging around northern France in Bill's Austin of England (that really was its name), stopping at restaurants of impeccable quality where all Master Fisk wanted was Marmite on toast.
There was salade de fruits and crêpe fourrée d'oeufs brouillés, ratatouille and galettes – but no bloody Marmite. My sensitive schoolboy stomach – ironed for years with the contents of that odd little glass pot with its silly yellow lid – simply couldn't take saumon fumé or even a plate of chèvre and the ridiculous long loaves that cut my gums when I tried to chew them. The French obviously had no taste. How could they live without Marmite? They understood it was some kind of casserole, but they also appeared to think it was a rock erosion or even – in old French, I think -- a hypocrite.
I guess we all get to love what we're used to. I was once addicted to Lucozade – but couldn't stand the sticky stuff when I last tried a glass. On a German holiday, I indulged myself with pint after pint of Coke. And I tried to avoid all vegetables. This was Hitler's fault. As rationing continued after the Second World War, school dining halls would invariably serve up heaps of dried cabbage, equally large heaps of equally dried lettuce, piles of carrots and – even more execrable – plates of beetroot. To this day, I cannot understand how the Iranians can drink beetroot juice on the streets of Tehran or how the Lebanese can drop by a café for a carrot juice.
The Saudis have a concoction called Saudi champagne which is actually rather glorious: a jug of whisked strawberries, pineapples, plums and apricots all jigga-jigga-jiggered in a machine with milk or yoghurt. But that wasn't around in the grey, damp streets in England in the late 1940s.
My Dad did once try to cut back on his beer costs by asking the local Maidstone brewer – Fremlins, it was called, with a large elephant on the label – to install casks of draught ale in the old cellar-cum-air-raid shelter of our home. "I never knew I had so many friends," he said mournfully. This experiment came to an end when a small chimney fire prompted my father to call the fire brigade. Since he was the borough treasurer, the brigade sent three entire appliances – the old-fashioned kind with massive ladders on the back and big brass bells – and the police turned up too. And when Bill had expressed his gratitude by offering a tap of Fremlins from the cellar, all of Maidstone Fire Brigade spent the next two hours finishing off his supply.
My Beirut cook did once find me eating Marmite on toast on my Beirut balcony. I had brought a pot from London. She asked to try it. So I made a small piece of toast, coated it liberally with butter and lashings of Marmite. I found her extracting it from her mouth in horror. "Mr Robert, how can you EAT this?" she demanded. But not all is lost. Flying Air France across the Atlantic a few days ago, I slipped back to the galley for an espresso and fell into conversation with one of the flight attendants (the subject: Mr Sarkozy's love of mobile phones). After some minutes, he switched into English. "I lived in London once," he said. "I loved everything about England. Your pubs, your red buses – and your Marmite!"
A man of judgement and sensitivity, no less. Who said the French had no taste?Reuse content