This is the first in an occasional series of articles you'll see here where one of the Too Many Chefs picks a food item that is beloved by some, but more generally reviled by the many and attempt to describe the experience of ingesting it. First off - I try Marmite.
Consulting the web, the most important thing to know about Marmite is apparently that it is NOT Vegemite. So what is it? Basically, it's beer yeast crap. Or more precisely, salty beer yeast crap.
To quote the site IloveMarmite.co.uk: "We are reliably informed that Marmite is made by adding salt to the waste-product produced by the yeast in the brewing process. The salt messes with the yeast cells and causes a reaction, resulting in the brown gloop called marmite."
So the yeast, um... leaves waste... in a big vat. The brewer adds salt and a couple other ingredients, and bottles the resulting brown sludge into a jar to sell to happy Brits and Kiwis and insane Americans who write for food web sites.
There are coffee beans that have to pass through certain animals to achieve their maximum flavor, so I guess selling waste as food is not unique, but it does make one pause before dipping the knife in the jar.
What makes it different from Vegemite made famous in Men At Work's "Land Down Under"? Vegemite is supposedly bland salty yeast crap. No half measures here, though, so I'm going to try the original full strength muck.
Maybe I should survey opinion around the web first. Here's a selection of quotes from the I Hate Marmite website:
"We tried Marmite at school, we tried it on bagels. It was gross!!! How people eat that is beyond me. They all crazy!!!" - Brad
"Marmite is completely evil. I have to work in an office of marmite-lovers and it is sheer torture. I need help. I need solidarity. And I agree with the congealed baby poo comparison - very apt. Except if I have a baby that pooed marmite I would give it up for adoption rather than face the smell of its nappies. Urrrggghh." - Liz
It's not all bad, though. There are some people who actually like the stuff. They'd have to, I suppose, or BestFoods wouldn't keep making the tar. And they are proud of it.
The boasts on the official Marmite site include: "MARMITE Spread is free from: Gluten, Soya and derivatives, Maize and derivatives, Milk and derivatives, Eggs and derivatives, Nuts and derivatives, Peanuts and derivatives, Flavours, Colours, Antioxidants, Added MSG, Preservatives "
Well so is my shoe, but I'm not eating it. Free of Flavours? And aren't Antioxidants supposed to be a good thing?
Further research discovered that Marmite is a good source of B Vitamins. This is significant to vegans and non-dairy eating vegetarians because it is difficult to get your RDA of B12 from vegetables (unless you'd like to literally eat 23 cups of spinach per day). B12 is in fortified products like soy milk and some cereals, but if you want a natural source, you're going to have to turn to tiny dead yeasties. And their crap.
I'm just delaying now. I know I have to try the stuff and I'm not stoked for it.
Let's examine the stuff. I open the jar. The smell that comes out is strong, not unpleasant, but not very much like a finished food. It smells something like a cross between molasses, vinegar, and bread. The undisturbed top of the goo is a slick deep brown, like wood glue. I jiggle the jar and the top remains steady, motionless. I turn the jar over and there is no sign of movement. Oh my.
Most of the lovers of Marmite I've found write about how wonderful it is on buttered toast. I'm wondering now if most of the lovers of Marmite grew up in homes with lead paint. I take two slices of Roman Meal wheat bread and toast them.
My cats, who usually are very interested in ANY sort of happening in the kitchen are nowhere to be found. Maybe they know.
I dip the knife into the Marmite and out comes a gooey mess. Long strands of glistening yeasty brown slowly extend from the knife's tip. It looks tantalizingly like Nutella, but a little less firm. I spread the Marmite thinly on my two slices of toast.
I breathe deeply, raise the toast to my mouth and bite.
That is not good. Not nice at all. It's very salty and tastes vaguely alive. It's like bad caviar blended into a paste. It tastes like the crust on a three=year old bottle of Worcestershire sauce. The butter, it does nothing. I chew on. It doesn't improve.
Halfway through slice number two, I notice the bread is crustier and sharper than it would be without the Marmite. My mouth feel raw. I cough twice. Only a half slice left. The remaining Marmite sits on top of the butter and teases me by looking like caramel. I know it lies.
Good lump of butter on that slice. I break off a small piece of the toast and offer it to my most cantankerous cat. His head pops up expectantly, sniffs the Marmite coated bread and then he delivers his verdict.
He tries to bury it.
I finish the last slice with no help whatsoever from the cat (ungrateful little wretch). I'm not nauseous, and I have the vague feeling I've done something good for me but unpleasant, like visiting the dentist to get a cavity filled.
I've looked for ways Marmite might actually fit into my life and I might have found one. It's often used to make a vegetarian "beef stock". I make a Vegetarian Pho recipe that suffers only from the fact the stock doesn't taste like the beef dish it mimics. I'll try that out next time and let you know how it goes.
There's also a recipe for tofu balls that requires Marmite. I don't know about the tofu, but I think this would be great for any recipe that calls for the taste of balls.
As for trying Marmite on its own or as a spread on toast - Maybe if I were REALLY REALLY drunk or hung over, a spot of nasty Marmite on toast would be appropriate, but I think otherwise it's going to live in the darkest corner of the fridge until I clean it out many months from now and wonder what the hell I was thinking when I bought it.
Anyone want a jar of yeast crap?