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If you’re anything like me, the very first thing you want to do on entering a new country is to go to a supermarket or corner shop and look at the everyday things which are common to that nation, but entirely alien to your home. Some labels will be very familiar, and some will be entirely strange, and there’s a lot of fun to be had in filling a basket with one of everything you don’t recognise and taking it away for sampling.

However, in the case of Marmite, it’s probably wise to have a little information to hand before you dig in, or you may be put off before you even start.

So to begin at the beginning: Marmite is a yeast extract, a by-product of the brewing process that makes beer. It’s essentially concentrated brewer’s yeast, which was somehow discovered to taste brilliant on buttered toast, or crackers. The flavor is hard to define, especially as there are two products called Marmite in the world, a British version and a New Zealand version, and they taste different. Then there’s Vegemite, the Australian equivalent, which is different again.

But if I had to make a comparison, I would say Marmite has the intense saltiness of pork crackling, carried on a wave of malty, meaty brackishness which is a little like soy sauce. If the five areas of taste can be defined as salt, sour, sweet, bitter and umami, Marmite is firmly in the latter category.

The trick when trying it for the first time is to get the right amount. As with anything which is very strong in flavor, too much ruins the experience. The best way approach for the first-timer is to spread butter on a slice of crusty white bread, then scrape just enough Marmite over the butter to color it light brown. Don’t be tempted to slather it on like sun cream, you’ll soon wish you hadn’t.

Of course, as with anything extreme, there are plenty of British people who cannot bear the stuff, as this commercial freely admits:

Marmite’s stroke of marketing genius has been to claim the extreme feelings people have about the stuff as an almost deliberate ploy on their part. And now people refer to all sorts of extreme experiences as being “like Marmite, you either love it or hate it.” New bands will refer to themselves as Marmite bands, because who wants to be merely tolerated? Simon Cowell? He’s a bit Marmite. Anne Robinson? Marmitus Magnus. Bono? He’s a massive jar in a presentation box.

Marmite, on the other hand, is a pleasant topping for bread. Let’s not get carried away.

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By Fraser McAlpine