Category Archives: Spices and seasonings

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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The soup addict is back, with sweet potatoes

That’s it. It’s blowing a hooley outside, the car’s in for its annual service, the stove has been lit despite the general mildness (it’s getting damp, too), and I’ve made the first soup of the season.

I do like cold soups – there are a couple of recipes here – but to me there is something profoundly wrong about serving soup, especially a warm soup, in summer. I know, I know: get over it, what about avgolemono, shorbat ads? My response is that it gets cold around the Med too, and that’s the time for soup. It’s certainly colder here, so I went looking for inspiration. I fancied something a bit different; I’ve got plenty of squash in, but there’s also plenty of squash soup in the freezer already. Plus (and I know this is silly), I wanted the variety of using bought ingredients. I’ve been using squash and tomatoes and beans and shallots and spuds for months. I wanted a change! I wanted exotica!

What I got, when I finally made it to the Co-op rather late in the day, was a sweet potato. And a red pepper.

IMG_0492sweet potato and red pepper soupI like a sweet potato soup, and red pepper goes well. But I still craved something a bit unusual, and sweet potato can be (surprise, surprise) a little too sweet. Obviously onions, garlic – but what about something to give a bit of oomph? A squeeze of lemon? Coriand-– no. Chillies, make a really hot soup? Nah, but maybe on the right lines. So I toyed with the idea of adding some pimenton dulce for the smoky taste, but in the end decided I didn’t want to overdo the whole capsicums thing. Then I hit on it: smoked garlic.

I know, very noughties. But I had a serious smoked garlic habit at one time, and I used it a lot – in marinades, in casseroles, in dips. It’s not that easy to get now, almost impossible round me and definitely impossible in the Co-op on a wet Monday night, but you can get smoked garlic paste and smoked garlic powder, and I had some in. Time to experiment…

Sweet potato and red pepper soup with smoked garlic
serves 3-4, depending on portion size and how thick you like your soup

1 medium to large sweet potato
1 large red pepper
1 medium onion
1 tsp rapeseed oil (or other neutral oil)
2 small cloves of garlic, chopped
1/2 tsp smoked garlic powder, or to taste – but not more than 1 tsp
700-900ml vegetable stock

Peel and chop the sweet potato into chunks no larger than 2cm; deseed and chop the pepper and finely chop the onion. Put the oil in a heavy-bottomed pan over a medium heat, and add the onion. Cook very gently without burning for about 10 minutes, until the onion is soft and transparent – this is sometimes easier with a lid on the pan. Add the chopped garlic and cook for another minute, then stir in the smoked garlic powder, mixing it in well. Add the sweet potato and the red pepper, and stir them round too. Then add enough stock to cover and increase the heat. Bring the soup to the boil, reduce the heat and simmer until all the vegetables are soft. Blend the soup and adjust the thickness with a little water if you wish; reheat if necessary.

The best thing about this? Not just the taste, which I love – but the fact that it sent me into my store cupboards in search of possibilities. I felt a bit like Howard Carter peering into Tutankhamun’s tomb: ‘What can you see?’ ‘Wonderful things…’ Watch out for recipes involving amchoor powder, a chermoula spice blend, barberries, vast quantities of ras-el-hanout, za’atar, black cardamoms and graines de paradis. Maybe not all at the same time, mind.