Category Archives: History

Missing out on Marmite?

Sometimes you can be wrong about things for ages. Sometimes your prejudices have no basis in fact, and sometimes your pride just gets in the way of you admitting it. Yes, I am Elizabeth Bennett – well, except for the fact that this is not the early nineteenth century, I’m not wearing a high-waisted empire line dress, and I don’t have Colin Firth hidden in the wardrobe. But I am talking about something else dark and handsome: Marmite.

YUM!I’m taking a risk here. At this point at least half my readers will go ‘bleagh’ and move on, making horrible retching noises. That’s because people either love the dark savoury spread or hate the revolting black slimyness, depending – a fact Marmite have often used in their advertising.

I’m unusual in that I didn’t always love Marmite. In fact until about twelve years ago, I don’t think I’d ever tasted it. It was one of those things I knew I didn’t want to experience directly – rather like Morris dancing, plague or incest – and which I preferred to leave to other people (exactly like Morris dancing, plague and incest).

Just before I left London I was in my normal overcrowded coffee bar, picking up my breakfast espresso and croissant. The customer in front of me asked the new, very young, very French assistant for coffee and some toast and Marmite. The boss was distracted with my order, and we all suddenly noticed at the same time that the girl was slathering vast quantities of Marmite onto the toast. Everyone started shouting at once, but her English had evidently abandoned her in the resulting panic so I joined in with ‘non, non, non, c’est dégueulasse!‘ at the top of my voice. And at that time I did think it was – well, I suppose the best translation in these circumstances is ‘vomit-inducing’.

1929 campaignI’ve no idea when I went over to the dark side – I genuinely cannot remember. I’m not even sure when I started buying it in the biggest possible jars, the 500g – yes, that’s half a kilo -ones. I get through about three a year, and that’s just me… so what do I know about my toast topping of choice? It turns out, not a lot.

I knew it was a fantastic source of B vitamins. OK, it’s a bit on the salty side but you’re not going to eat it by the spoonful unless you are someone desperately trying to impress a young French girl working in a London coffee bar. It’s a by-product of the brewing industry, and a little makes a vast amount of difference to the taste of a stew. That was it.

Oh, I did know that the recipe and process were secret. That had filtered through. As had the fact that it is not the same as Bovril: dear lord, no. Bovril is made from cows and I don’t want to know what bits or how. Marmite is 100% vegetarian.

1930s ad• But I didn’t know that the first Marmite pots were earthenware, even though it is named after a marmite, traditionally an earthenware cooking pot. Somehow I thought it was always sold in the distinctive glass jars. In 1974 there was a jar shortage, and Marmite was sold in more conventional ones for a while. Some things are just plain wrong.

• I didn’t know that British troops in WW1 had Marmite as part of their rations, or that it was supposed to be particularly important for those serving in Mesopotamia, where deficiency diseases were thought to be more likely. It was also used as a vitamin supplement for German POWs held in Britain during the Second World War. And in 1999, British soldiers in Kosovo were sent their supplies.

• The BNP used a jar (and the company’s  ‘love it or hate it’ slogan) in an ad campaign, leading to threats of legal action if the ad was not withdrawn. Didn’t know that either. Of course, the ‘love it or hate it’ Marmite comparison has been used for numerous analogies, not just the BNP – yuk. It’s also been used to describe things as diverse as Wagner, test matches at Headingley, George Galloway, Russell Brand, Cath Kidston’s fabric designs, The Archers, Thought for the Day, Times New Roman, bagpipes, Boris Johnson, faith schools, Shirley Bassey, Twitter, Lily Allen and Ken Livingstone. There are many others… horse racing, for example. Enough, already. (Oh, and there are two Marmite board games and even a Marmite rap.) Ahem.

• Nor, thankfully, did I know about a couple of Marmite cocktails. No, no and thrice no. One involves vodka and yellow tomato juice and blackberry liqueur as well as other ingredients. The other, allegedly from a top London hotel, I’ve only heard about; it’s unsupported by concrete evidence and may have been so scary that its existence is subject to official sanction.

1930s ad• On a more positive note, I’d absolutely no idea whatsoever that Marmite was used to treat mill hands in 1930s Bombay; they were suffering from a form of anaemia and the remedy worked (that was because of the folic acid it contains). It’s also been used to treat people suffering from malnutrition.

• It is, however, banned in Denmark. It’s fortified with some other vitamins, and that makes it illegal there. Oh, all right – it isn’t, even though that’s how it was reported. Products which are fortified have to be licensed in Denmark; the company which imported Marmite wasn’t licensed and therefore stopped selling it. Not quite the same thing… but nearly. There have also been similar problems in Canada. And the idea that it was banned from prisons because it could be used to make hooch is just an urban myth. It isn’t, and it can’t.

• I didn’t know that the New Zealand version had a different taste. I knew it had different packaging, but I didn’t know it tasted all that different (‘less tangy’, apparently – it contains caramel and sugar, which the original does not). I also didn’t know anything about ‘Marmageddon’, the 2012-13 Marmite shortage in New Zealand and Australia, after the manufacturing plant was damaged in the Christchurch earthquake. Apparently there was panic buying. I’d have been there, storming the supermarkets.

And during Marmageddon ridiculous prices – up to NZ$800, according to some sources – were demanded for jars. This may or may not be completely true; it could be more press exaggeration. Anyone know for sure? Anyone spend NZ$800 on a jar of Marmite?

• And another question. It’s supposed to keep mosquitoes at bay. Anyone know if it works, and if it does, do you have to lather it on – as though you were that toast in a London coffee bar – or eat it? Just asking… even though I now love Marmite, there are some things I do not want to do. Almost as bad as the cocktail, in fact.

Right, time for toast!

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In the hungry gap…

Every year I end up in this position come April and May. Nothing to eat. Er, except for a huge stash of frozen green beans, and they’re beginning to pall a little.

dig for victoryIt may seem surprising to anyone who doesn’t grow vegetables – though obviously we all should (!) and this is an accurate depiction of me, by the way – but this is the time of year when home-grown produce is thin on the ground. Traditionally, it’s the season when labourers and peasants’ resources were at their most stretched and starvation was a real possibility.

Happily that’s not (quite) the case now, but it can still be an issue for anyone who likes to grow as much of their own veg as possible. There just isn’t that much available. Brassicas and the like are mostly over by now, going to seed as the temperature increases, and nothing else has yet come on stream.

Admittedly there is a variety of kale which fills the gap – introduced to Britain in 1941, when it was most desperately needed – but I’ve lived on kale at this time of year before now and I’m not keep to repeat the experience. And that’s what it does: repeat. I shall say no more, but my decision has been a popular one. If you’d like to test it for yourself, Chiltern Seeds usually have Hungry Gap Kale. It’s frost resistant (not a problem for me), and it does have a good flavour, but… oh, yes; I said I would say no more. Instead I’m just going to stand in the garden and sigh.

We are still lucky though. Not only can we garden without the risk of enemy parachutists landing in the potato plot, we can supplement our stock with food from the shops. And even if we try not to fall back on that to any great extent, we do not have to actually can anything, though apparently one in five US households still do. Listen to Betty MacDonald on the perils of home canning in the late 1920s:

First you plant too much of everything in the garden; then you waste hours and hours in the boiling sun cultivating; then you buy a pressure cooker and can too much of everything so it won’t be wasted. Frankly I don’t like home-canned anything, and I spent all of my spare time reading up on botulism…

That risk still exists today: between 1996 and 2008 there were 48 outbreaks of botulism in the US that were directly linked to home-canned food, and botulism kills – nastily. To me, this doesn’t sound like something I should be doing; I’m thinking the Russian roulette scene in The Deerhunter, but with a jar of home-canned cauliflower.

beans dryingThank goodness we have freezers now (admittedly freezers full of french beans). Incidentally, the same over-production addiction – Betty MacD. noted that her neighbours were eating the season before the season before’s produce, and were still planting and planning on canning the current season’s stuff – applies today. I know I don’t need quite so many climbing beans this year, but guess what’s in the cold frame, ready to go out?

And in a few months time they’ll have been blanched and be drying off, ready for packing and putting in the freezer…

I’ve seen all sorts of alternative suggestions for things to fill the hungry gap but I’m not sure I could live on asparagus – and though I wouldn’t mind trying the season is short and doesn’t actually fill the gap. However, these ‘options’ mostly come down to other brassicas – purple sprouting broccoli, spring greens, and more kales – and in my experience most of these are already bolting. Squashes, if seasoned well in a good autumn (and that’s a big ‘if’ for me here in Snowdonia) will keep, but even they are failing now, going a little squishy at the base or stalk or, alternatively, getting so hard you have to take an axe to them. Leeks can stay in the ground so they’ve been recommended, but by late April they’re generally sending up spectacular seed heads or are so woody as to be unusable. It’s that HG kale or diddly squat. Diddly squat, then.

Despite this, I rather like the hungry gap in a perverse way, even if I am fed up to the back teeth of frozen beans. It connects me one of the main reasons I bought a house with a decent garden: feeding myself. It reminds me that food should never be taken for granted, and that seasonality should be a factor in my diet. The more I rely on out of season foodstuff from a supermarket, the greater the negative impact on the environment. I know it’s only a small thing, but lots of small things make a bigger thing. And in my case, a giant vegetable soup. Or Spanish green beans. Or green beans with tomato. Or a green Thai curry featuring – you guessed – green beans. Or just plain green beans with tomato sauce and fish fingers (getting desperate here). Green bean terrine?

Hang on a second – there is something other than frozen beans, though I’m not quite sure it’s a substitute for tomatoes, spuds, onions, beetroot, courgettes. The rhubarb looks promising…

Hazelnuts, history – and a sweet treat

Phew. This is the foraging season par excellence, and I’m knackered. It’s a spectacularly good wild food year (so far) and this will be the first of several posts devoted to the art of getting something – at least partly – for free. It’s a wonderful year for nuts especially – a ‘mast’ year, when trees go into overproduction. Nobody really knows why it happens although there are many ideas floating about, but the net result as far as I am concerned is that the squirrels can’t keep up (and that’s one of the theories – overproduce, and some will be left to grow). But this also means that there’s a vague chance of me gathering some hazelnuts too.

Nearby are some woods where the hazels are both productive and accessible; some years I’m lucky and beat the squirrels and foraging dog walkers to the bounty, but I didn’t need to go there this time. I was in a friend’s garden a couple of weeks ago, near the woods,  and I suddenly realised I was walking on a carpet of nuts. My friend didn’t want them (?), so I gathered as many as I could – a sort-of public service, helping her tidy her garden.

hazelnutsAs I sat in front of the television cracking the nuts, such a boring job, it struck me that I was simply doing what inhabitants of this area have been doing for time out of mind, and indeed what the prehistoric inhabitants of most of Britain would have been doing at this time of year. Except they wouldn’t have been in a comfy cottage watching Strictly (go Dave Myers!); they’d probably have been sitting outside a bender-like home and listening to someone telling stories about how the land their father used to hunt over was now too wet to walk on.

Once archaeology has bitten you in the ankle, in my case at the age of about six, it never lets go. The Mesolithic – the period just before the development of farming (if you can draw clear boundaries at all), when there was extraordinary environmental change – has always been my passion; let’s say broadly from about 9000BP to about 5000BP, depending on where you are. Hunter-gathering always held more appeal for me than a settled, farming life with the growth of hierarchy; it was a world I could relate to. And one of the major food resources exploited by the Mesolithic people of Britain was – drum roll, please – the hazelnut.

Like us, they’d have foraged for them at this time of year. Their harvest could have been stored (roast nuts store quite well, and many of the hazelnut shells retrieved from archaeological sites have been burnt), or they might have been processed in some way for future consumption – ground and made into a paste, perhaps. It’s also noticeable that the spread of hazel and the spread of people seem to keep pace; they were clearly a vital resource. There’s even some speculation that the growth of hazel was deliberately encouraged by setting fires which would clear the land. This would also make hunting easier – a double benefit – and there’s no way of telling (yet) which came first; they seem to be simultaneous. At Goldcliff East on the Severn Estuary there’s evidence of this firesetting, plus of the actual preparation of hazelnuts, plus – amazing, this – the direct traces of the Mesolithic people themselves: footprints. And we know hazels flourished in Doggerland before it was drowned; analysis of peat dredged up from the North Sea tells us this. And of course it wasn’t only the nuts; the bendy, flexible wood was useful for many things, too.

As befits such an ancient food, hazelnuts crop up in legend, myth and superstition all the time. Hazelnut shells can be used in divination on Halloween; the wood was sacred and used to kindle the need-fire at Beltane; the ‘milk’ of hazelnuts might be given to Scottish children born in autumn as their first drink because it would bring them good luck and health. In Celtic myth they’re a signifier of wisdom. Even in Victorian times ‘nutting’ had a suitably, er, outrageous and almost pagan reputation. In Flora Britannica there’s a reprinted complaint from the owner of Hatfield Forest: ‘…as soon as the Nuts begin to get ripe … the idle and disorderly Men and Women of bad Character from Stortford … come … in large parties’ – and got up to all sorts of things, and not just picking hazelnuts, ahem, ahem, filth. Disgusting.

I’d probably class as a Disorderly Woman, certainly when I was whooping about my friend’s garden, scooping up nuts. So what did I do with my haul? Recreate a Mesolithic house in my own garden and sit outside it, contemplating the level of the Irish Sea? Nah. When it came to it, I didn’t have that many – the nuts are often blind, and some of the ones I picked up had also been there too long. In the end I adapted a River Cottage recipe.

Toasted hazelnuts in honey hazelnuts

A quantity of hazelnuts
clear honey
Greek yoghurt

You never know how many hazelnuts you are going to have, so just adapt the recipe to suit. Find a small jar (or several if you’ve been lucky), and put it in a low oven to sterilise it while you shell the nuts (you can also sterilize a jar in a pan of boiling water, more economical and practical unless you have shedloads of nuts). Allow the jar to cool. Rub any loose skin off the shelled nuts.

Put a dry frying pan on the heat and put the hazelnuts in it. Roast the nuts, shaking them about so they don’t burn. When they begin to smell warm and toasty, take the pan off the heat and tip them onto a plate. Put a layer of nuts into the bottom of the jar, and add a teaspoon of honey, then more hazelnuts and so on, until you have run out of nuts, making sure they are covered in honey. Press the nuts down into the honey; they will float upwards, but just keep pressing them down as you use them (this is why you need a small jar). Cover the jar and set aside.

This mixture is absolutely delicious spooned over Greek yoghurt – you don’t need much, either. I tested them over ice cream (briefly – I’m lactose intolerant, after all) and found them too sweet, but that’s another suggestion. And they’re perfect on porridge, at least according to me…

And I’ve no idea how long they’ll keep because – well, because I’m eating them fairly quickly. I’d have starved to death in the Mesolithic.