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
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
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
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