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Marmite: under the lid

Australians don't like it, New Zealanders can't get it, Graham Henry admitted to being embarrassed at having to spruik it ... we lift the lid on everyone's favourite poo-like sandwich spread, Marmite.

Australians don't like it, New Zealanders can't get it, Graham Henry admitted to being embarrassed at having to spruik it ... we lift the lid on everyone's favourite poo-like sandwich spread, Marmite.

MarmiteWhat many people don’t know* is that if it weren’t for the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the subsequent conflict that became World War I, we might not be eating Marmite at all.

While brewery workers in Manchester, England, first discovered what we now know as Marmite stuck to the walls of an improperly cleaned beer vat in 1912, it was only the outbreak of war that led to its adoption as a foodstuff.

As supplies of industrial whale grease were diverted to essential industries, the workers were forced to improvise lubricants for the countless bearings in the steam-powered breweries. History doesn’t record which worker decided to actually spread the viscous black ooze on his toast, but by the end of World War I most English breweries were doing a roaring trade in the yeasty stuff.

The truth (which has yet, dear reader, to appear on the page) is even more interesting. It concerns a German scientist with an implausible name and a legacy out of all proportion to his actual contribution to humanity. (But out of proportion, sadly, in a bad way.) His name (and I invite you to join me in doubting it) was Justus von Liebig, which, if it hasn’t been used as a wink-wink-nudge-nudge clue in an old-school April Fool’s Day newspaper ad, really should be.

The list of things he did in his life is so long and impressive he should have added, ‘created long and impressive list’, to the list. While it’s true that he can’t be described as a chemist by training, that’s because he largely invented the idea of training chemists, founding the world’s first major school of chemistry at the University of Giessen. There, he founded the leading German language journal of chemistry and found time between tutorials to create the scientific foundation for the fertilizer industry, invent mirror manufacture as we know it, arrange the translation of John Stuart Mill’s Logic into German and perfect the process of turning meat into powder, a phenomenon now known as Oxo cubes.

Oh, and somewhere along the way, he also discovered that brewer’s yeast could be concentrated, bottled and eaten, making him the father of yeast extracts in general and Marmite in particular.

Marmite itself was first sold as a commercial product in the UK in 1902, almost 40 years after Herr Liebig was buried a baron in Germany. (The name Marmite is originally French and means a covered cooking pot, as shown on the label of the UK version.) Eight years later, Sanitarium began scraping New Zealand beer vats, and sold its first pot in 1910. (Australia’s Vegemite didn’t hit the shelves until 1923. Ha!)

So what’s in the jar? Brewery vat scrapings, certainly (‘brewer’s yeast’, if we’re being kind), sugar (yay!) not one but two kinds of salt (also yay!), ‘secret herbs and spices’, lashings of folate (helps prevent anaemia, which may open some interesting Twilight marketing partnership doors) and a raft of other vitamins.

What may well keep us coming back for more, though, is its ‘free glutamic acids’, which, if you were to bump into them on the street, you might well mistake for mono sodium glutamate, or MSG. So Marmite’s not so much yummy, as it is umami – the so- called ‘fifth taste’, also found in savoury foods like cured meats, mushrooms, soy sauce and (oh yes) breast milk.

And what of Marmageddon? Was it really divine retribution when a foolish dairy owner exposed both his greed and his ignorance of the Book of Revelation and priced a family-sized jar at $6.66? Probably not – while British Marmite is just another Unilever product, our stuff is produced by Sanitarium, which is basically an offshoot of the Seventh Day Adventist Church.

So while conspiracy theorists may believe the current shortage was engineered by Sanitarium (or Satan), its excellent nickname almost certainly wasn’t. While the end is certainly nigh, it isn’t permanent, with supplies expected to resume mid-year – making Marmite, like both its Adventist owners’ favourite carpenter and Edmond’s equally iconic baking powder, Sure to Rise.

* because it isn't true