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What Is Marmite? A History and Review of “The Dark Elixir”

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

A Brief Overview of Marmite, “The Dark Elixir”

A Brief Overview of Marmite, “The Dark Elixir”

What Is Marmite?

Marmite is a dark brown, sticky paste with a powerful salty flavour. Some people adore it; others find it absolutely revolting. There seems to be no middle ground. Full disclosure: I love the stuff.

Marmite’s Origin and History

We have 19th-century German scientist Justus von Liebig to thank, or curse, for the existence of Marmite. Apparently, he was fiddling about with brewer’s yeast when he accidentally discovered that it could be concentrated, eaten, and not cause a slow, agonizing death.

A company in Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire, England got to hear of von Liebig’s culinary breakthrough. In 1902, the Marmite Food Extract Company in that noble town set out to make, bottle, and sell a yeast extract spread.

By happy coincidence, Burton was a beer-brewing centre, with more than 30 such establishments in action in 1881. So, the Marmite people had a plentiful supply of raw material for their concoction. According to the BBC:

The original recipe contained salt, spices and celery. Later folic acid, vitamin B12, thiamin and riboflavin - vitamins which occur naturally in some foods - were added in high concentrations.

The manufacturers keep the production method secret but some pointy-headed folk have figured out the general principles. Words such as hypertonic and autolysis are bandied about, so it’s not for mere mortals to understand.

Careful with that tray. Oh! Never mind.

Careful with that tray. Oh! Never mind.

Marmite Company Releases Their Product

The Marmite Company spent a couple of years perfecting their product before unleashing it on the unsuspecting British public. It didn’t take long for the country to divide into two camps; those who loved it and those who can’t appreciate a good thing when it’s offered to them.

By 1907, the demand from connoisseurs of the gustatory arts was such that the Burton factory could not produce enough to satisfy demand. A second plant was opened in south London. A resident recalled in a history blog from the area “When I was a kid we lived near the Marmite factory at Vauxhall. The smell from the factory was disgusting! People living close by applied to have their rates (municipal taxes) reduced because of the stench (they failed of course).”

Needless to say, the Marmite haters would never admit that the product helped Britain win World War One. Okay, that’s a bit of a stretch. However, there was a problem of thiamine (B1) deficiency among soldiers causing beri-beri, creating a swift heartbeat, shortness of breath, and swollen legs. So, the catering corps started shovelling Marmite into the lads in the trenches so they were fit enough to go over the top and get mowed down by the withering fire of German machine-guns.

Fun Marmite Trivia

  • Inmates in British prisons love Marmite; the guards not so much. It seems some old lags figured if Marmite is mixed with fermented fruit a quite acceptable moonshine is produced. It’s not Château Lafitte Rothschild but when you’re in the hoosegow you can’t be too fussy about your hooch. It’s marketed behind bars under the brand Marmite Mule.
  • Lucy Willis was an English scientist working in Bombay in the 1930s. She used Marmite to treat mill workers suffering from a form of anemia.
  • The Australians have a version they call Vegemite. They claim it’s superior, to which the only appropriate response is “Go jump in a billabong cobber.”
  • Several British newspapers, such as The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph, say Marmite repels mosquitoes, not applied topically you understand but internally. Supposedly, it’s the vitamin B the mozzies don’t like. Unproven says Snopes, or they would if they took the time to investigate.
  • It is good for you. So says British nutritionist Melanie Brown: “Marmite plays such a useful part in many people’s diet, and it’s incredibly useful for older people who are short in vitamin B-12. It’s full of folic acid, and there’s lots of evidence that many women, young women of child-bearing age are deficient in folic acid.”
Known locally as the “Monumite” Burton-on-Trent has honoured the Marmite Company with this statue of the iconic jar.

Known locally as the “Monumite” Burton-on-Trent has honoured the Marmite Company with this statue of the iconic jar.

Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without Marmite. It’s as important to me as roasties, Brussels sprouts and gravy … I’ve become more adventurous with my Marmite recipes. it also goes in the chocolate gateaux and I use it as part of the frosting for Christmas cakes.

— Tracy Matthews, owner of the Marmite Museum

Some Serving Suggestions

This is the author’s invention and it came about from when he was a lad of about 10. On Saturday nights, he sat in front of the telly with his family watching the Billy Cotton Band Show, a peckishness often asserted its presence. (Tigger, the spaniel, would lie in front of the coal fire and occasional sparks would land on his fur and an unpleasant singeing pong would rise. “Dad. Tigger’s on fire again.” But that is a digression, hopefully instructive to all Cocker Spaniels.)

The Billy Cotton Marmite Sandwich

Okay, The Billy Cotton Marmite Sandwich. A slice of white bread is buttered and covered with Marmite. Another slice of white bread is buttered and covered with Branston Pickle. Third, a slice of bread is covered with a good nippy cheddar cheese, followed by a fourth slice of bread. What? I was a growing boy.

Marmite Soldiers and Soft-Boiled Eggs

Most children in Britain, at least the fortunate ones, grow up dipping Marmite soldiers into soft-boiled eggs for breakfast. The egg is self explanatory. The Marmite soldiers are thin strips of toast with Marmite spread on them.

Marmite Spaghetti

Other Uses

  • The manufacturer suggests using Marmite to give some punch to soups and stews.
  • Marmite and cherry truffles (no, just no)

Marmite vs. Vegemite

Bonus Factoids

  • In 2011, the Danish government banned Marmite from the country’s grocery stores on the grounds that it ran afoul of arcane laws about fortifying products with additional vitamins. However, common sense prevailed and the ban was lifted in 2014.
  • Marmite is 100 percent vegetarian.
  • A certain type of cooking pot in France is called a marmite (pronounced mar-meet). An image of such a casserole appears on the label of each jar of Marmite (pronounced mar-mite)
  • Tracy Matthews of Cardiff, Wales calls herself a “superfan” of Marmite. She has what she believes is the world’s biggest collection of Marmite memorabilia, a homage to what she calls “The wonderful Dark Elixir.”

Sources

  • “Marmite: Ten things You’ll Love/Hate to Know.” BBC News, May 25, 2011.
  • “Marmite.” Unilever
  • “Vauxhall’s Marmite Factory.” Tradescant Road and South Lambeth, a hyperlocal blog, March 17, 2011.
  • The Marmite Museum.
  • “Marmite-loving Brit Mum Eats Tangy Spread with EVERY Meal…Including Christmas CAKE.” Katrina Turrill, Daily Express, November 30, 2016.
  • “Marmite: A Potted History of the British-Born Spread.” Danielle Hayden, BBC News, October 14, 2016.

© 2018 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Katharine L Sparrow from Massachusetts, USA on July 11, 2018:

Hysterical! Loved this hub, amusing and informative at the same time! Who knew there was a Marmite SONG? Put me in the "hates it" camp, but I would be willing to try the Marmite spaghetti .... pasta always has possibilities! Well done, terrific hub!

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on July 11, 2018:

Thank you Linda. I was at coffee with half a dozen Canadians yesterday and when I asked about Marmite; they all went Blecchh. How dare they?

Toasted crumpet with butter and Marmite. Yum, yum as that heavenly saltiness soaks into the cavities. Be still my beating heart.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on July 11, 2018:

I've loved marmite ever since I was a child. It's still part of my diet, though I doubt whether I'll ever add it to my chocolate cakes. Thanks for sharing all of the interesting facts about the spread.

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on July 09, 2018:

Wesman you are a brave hombre. I salute you.

Wesman Todd Shaw from Kaufman, Texas on July 09, 2018:

I'm fairly adventurous when it comes to food. I'll try most things at least once, and whenever a Marmite opportunity presents itself to me, well, I'll report back with the results.