Love it or hate it, Marmite is having a massive foodie moment

Dark, uncompromising and deeply divisive, if any spread captures the state of the nation, it’s Marmite. The slogan “You either love it or hate it” was conceived in the 90s, but it is a perfect fit for today’s combative climate. Perhaps it is unsurprising, then, that Marmite is having a moment: taking star turns on Michelin-worthy menus and courting controversy in the supermarket aisles with such combinations as Marmite brussel sprouts, Marmite pot noodles and Marmite crunchy peanut butter.

Last month, the spread tapped into another national schism by staging a Twitter-based “Nuterendum” to launch its latest spin-off, Marmite smooth peanut butter. “Now that Marmite smooth peanut butter has landed, it looks like crunchy has some competition,” the brand tweeted, calling for the public to vote for either “Team Smooth” or ‘“Team Crunchy”. The results? A depressingly familiar 52% for crunchy, 48% for smooth.

So far, so late capitalism. Marmite’s maker, Unilever, acknowledges its peanut butter spreads are “inspired by fanatics concocting their own yeasty peanut butter combinations and taking to social media to showcase these creations”, in the words of brand manager Camilla Williamson. Yet Marmite’s mission creep into the snacks market highlights the spread’s potential beyond toast.

From being a secret staple of chefs and home cooks accustomed to sticking it in stocks and sauces, Marmite has become a headline ingredient, writ loud and proud on restaurant menus up and down the country. There’s the Marmite-glazed wings at Eat Vietnam in Stirchley, Birmingham; Monica Galleti’s pumpkin agnolotti with Marmite and mushrooms at Mere, central London; and the flat-iron steak with marrowbone and Marmite at the Bank House in Chislehurst, south-east London, recently and glowingly reviewed by Grace Dent.

“From a chef’s point of view, it’s like a seasoning,” says the chef Sat Bains. “Like soy sauce and Lea & Perrins, it gives depth and umami – it’s a great tool for layering flavours.” Although Bains has been using Marmite quietly since his eponymous restaurant opened in Nottingham in 1999, “mixing it with butter and basting fish and meat in it”, it was his mille-feuille – scallops interlaced with black truffle and crisp chicken skin, served with a Marmite jus with soy and elderflower vinegar – that put his use of it on the menu itself. It now features in the broth for his goat and pork belly meatballs.

Gizzi Erskine, meanwhile, has been up front about her love for what she calls “the umami gunge” from the off. At her forthcoming Covent Garden restaurant, The Nitery, she will be offering steak tartare with bone marrow dripping on Marmite toast with cured egg yolk. “The Marmite and the dripping soak into the burned toast,” she says, of the culinary ode to her after-school snack, “and when you pop the tartare into it, it elevates the flavour to another place.”


A Marmite emulsion livens up this pasta dish from the restaurant Mere.

A Marmite emulsion livens up this pasta dish from the restaurant Mere.

Tom Cenci of Loyal Tavern in London often turns to Marmite “for richness, saltiness, shine in stocks and sauces. And I have a couple of vegetarian and vegan dishes that rely on a Marmite stock.” He’s wary of being “gimmicky”, however. “Marmite has a lot of nostalgic associations for people – I grew up on Marmite crumpets and a cuppa – and to turn it into something like a cheesecake can get silly.” While Bains, Erskine and Galetti are happy to shout about it, Cenci is wary of naming Marmite on his menu for fear of “putting people who don’t like it off”.

As a hater myself (sorry, but a lover could not write this with the requisite objectivity) and a frequent restaurant-goer, I can see his point, although I now know that, in the hands of a good chef, Marmite often goes undetected. “You’d never taste Marmite in any of the vegetables I’ve cooked in it,” says Cenci. I’ve probably eaten Marmite unwittingly numerous times: I’ve had Cenci’s boulangère potatoes for one thing – a hearty amalgam of floury potatoes, onions and Marmite. Andrew Haebe of the Fairmont St Andrews in Scotland even uses the spread in his traditional German sourdough. “During the bread production, this process can be used to increase the salt content without crushing the fresh yeast,” he says. “It’s the perfect base for dough production.” Meanwhile, if I hadn’t told you Bains has long basted his meat in Marmite butter, you would never have known.

Therein lies its strength, Bains says. “I’d never have Marmite on toast, but reducing it down into a concentrate and mixing it with butter – it’s like a veal stock, really.” Marmite’s makers have clocked this. “We have found some Marmite haters, who hate the strong umami taste of Marmite on toast, find it much more palatable when used as an ingredient in a recipe,” says Williamson. The foray into pot noodles and peanut butter might not pull in purists – “the equivalent of BBQ-flavoured crisps” is how one “lover” described Marmite spin-offs – but it could well tempt those who have knowingly or accidentally enjoyed it as an ingredient.

And there’s more to this than marketing – or even taste. “Marmite also taps into certain wider trends in the food world,” says Shokofeh Hejazi, the senior trend analyst at The Food People. These include concerns about food waste (Marmite is made from leftover brewer’s yeast; at Alchemilla in Nottingham, the chef Alex Bond makes his own from leftover sourdough) and the rise in plant-based diets, to which the spread brings a delicious and nutritious counterpoint.

“Marmite is rich in vitamin B12 – a vitamin naturally found mostly in animal products,” Hejazi says, “and it is packed full of umami and salty flavour.” As my Marmite-fan friend Emily enthuses: “If you’re a meat-eater turned vegetarian, it should be top of your shopping list.” Used well – either by chefs or by Marmite themselves in sprouts, nut butters and noodles – “it has all the complexity of an eight-hour slow-cooked, Maillard-reacted, charred-yet-tender prime cut of beef distilled into a gooey, caramel-textured liquor”.

The Guardian

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