Marmite Spread Captures Hearts, Curdles Stomachs



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Writer Bill Bryson once said, "There are certain things you have to be British to appreciate: skiffle music, saltshakers with a single hole, and Marmite — an edible yeast extract with the visual properties of an industrial lubricant.

If you've heard of Marmite, you probably also have a pretty strong opinion on whether you like it or not. The product originated in the United Kingdom, and these days it's advertised with the slogan, "Love it or hate it."

That's because Marmite has a very distinctive flavor. It's a byproduct of the beer-making process, made from the yeast extract left behind from the brewing process.

The spread is thick, sticky and dark — almost black, like tar. And, some say, it's disgusting.

But Maggie Hall disagrees. Marmite is her secret passion. The author of The Mish-Mash Dictionary of Marmite, Hall says the savory goo was another gift from milk safety hero Louis Pasteur, who paved the way for the stuff with his yeast research.

Visit Hall's home for a Marmite feast, and she'll serve you Marmite cake, Marmite egg salad, and sausages cooked in Marmite. To some, like All Things Considered host Guy Raz, such a meal is a delight. But for the uninitiated, like producer Travis Larchuk, there's an entirely different reaction.

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GUY RAZ, host:

Marmite is one of the most divisive foods in Britain. You either love it or hate it. It's an edible yeast extract made from the sludge left behind after beer is brewed.

It was introduced in Britain under the name Marmite in 1902. And ever since, for many millions living on the British Isles, a breakfast without a thin layer of dark, sticky, tar-like Marmite on toast is an incomplete one.

Now, a British expat, Maggie Hall, who lives here in Washington, D.C., has just written a new book about Marmite. And so, a few days ago, I went over to her house with one of our producers, Travis Larchuk.


RAZ: And, Travis, you came along because, at that point, you had never tried it.

LARCHUK: Right, and because you told me I didn't have a choice.

RAZ: Okay. So Travis and I headed to Maggie's house on Capitol Hill.

(Soundbite of knocking)

Ms. MAGGIE HALL (Author, "The Mish-mash Dictionary of Marmite: An Anecdotal A-Z of 'Tar-in-a-Jar'"): Coming. (Unintelligible).

RAZ: Hello.

Ms. HALL: (Unintelligible).

RAZ: Ms. Hall?

Ms. HALL: Yes.

RAZ: Hi, I'm Guy.

Ms. HALL: Yeah, Guy, come on in.

RAZ: How are you?

Ms. HALL: Welcome. (Unintelligible) and Travis, good to meet you.

LARCHUK: Hi. Nice to meet you.

Ms. HALL: Yeah, hello.

RAZ: So Maggie used to cover America for the British tabloid, the Daily Mirror. But for a long time, her secret passion has been Marmite. And we came to talk to her about her new book, which is called "The Mish-Mash Dictionary of Marmite."

LARCHUK: And when we walked into her house, there was this spread of Marmite-infused dishes all on the dining room table.

RAZ: Look at all that Marmite on the table.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HALL: I opened my big jar for you guys.

RAZ: And she even made a Marmite cake for us, an unpleasant combination of Marmite, orange marmalade and shredded cheddar cheese.

Ms. HALL: We have sausages cooked in Marmite, Marmite water marinade, in the oven. We have, of course, the biggest jar of Marmite you can buy, which I just brought back from England.

RAZ: And then there is this sort of crumbly egg�

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HALL: That is an egg salad with Marmite in it.

RAZ: Okay. So now - all right, so we've set the scene here. Now, the big question: how did somebody figure out that you could take the sludge from a brewery and turn it into something you eat?

Ms. HALL: It was Louis Pasteur, who abandoned for a while his making milk safe for us, and he teamed up with the brilliant German chemist Baron Justus von Liebig. And between them, they came up with this formula that turned this horrible, horrible, gross-looking stuff into a vaguely edible mess.

RAZ: And a few years later, a group of British investors actually bought the recipe and started marketing this sludge as Marmite. And ever since, it's been hawked as a kind of a cure-all for everything, from baldness to anemia, to malaria, and even, for a time, doctors in Britain would recommend that nursing mothers use it to help wean their babies off the breast.

LARCHUK: And it's rich in vitamin B and folic acid.

RAZ: Right. Anyway, about 10 years ago, Maggie Hall was finally inspired to write this book about Marmite. So she wrote a manuscript and she took it to one publisher who rejected it flat out.

Ms. HALL: Another publisher said, is there any sex in it? I said, no. He said, no. No, it won't work.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: Eventually, she did get a deal, which is how we ended up hearing about this book.

LARCHUK: So there we were�

RAZ: At her house with all this Marmite on the table. And, Travis, it would have been impolite not to try some of the Marmite cake or the Marmite egg salad or the Marmite sausages.

Maggie, there is a strong smell of Marmite in this room that we're sitting in, and I guess I could describe it as kind of a sweet, salty but overpowering smell. How would you describe the taste of Marmite?

Ms. HALL: (Unintelligible). My mother always used to say, oh, no wonder you like Marmite because you used to eat anchovies whole from 18 months of age.

RAZ: I have eaten Marmite. I do eat Marmite.

Ms. HALL: I think you're an aficionado, Guy.

RAZ: A little bit of an aficionado. But our producer Travis Larchuk, with us, has not tried it before. So we're going to - I'm going to eat it because it looks and smells delicious. We'll see what Travis thinks.

Ms. HALL: Get the spittoon ready.

LARCHUK: Maggie says for beginners like me, the best way to try Marmite is on a piece of hot buttered toast, which is the traditional way to eat Marmite.

RAZ: Travis, go for it.


(Soundbite of chewing)

Ms. HALL: Oh, God, his eyes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: You know what? I need to take a bite because I've been waiting.

Ms. HALL: Oh, Travis.

RAZ: Delicious.

LARCHUK: It's just thoroughly unpleasant from start to finish.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: Hmm.

LARCHUK: I can feel it going down my throat.

RAZ: Okay, Travis, you now had 24 hours to mull this over. Was it really all that bad?

LARCHUK: Well, Guy, one time I tried one of those pellets from one of those vending machines at a duck pond that you use to feed the ducks.

RAZ: Oh, yeah.

LARCHUK: And that was better than Marmite.

RAZ: That's our producer, Travis Larchuk, who courageously agreed to try Marmite, Britain's favorite edible yeast spread. Travis, thanks.

LARCHUK: No problem, Guy.

(Soundbite of music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.