Missing Marmite: The end of the dearth is in sight
Lovers of Marmite, that deliciously dark sticky spread, have been without their fix. Blame it on the alcohol bans during lockdown; the knock-on effect of less beer being brewed led to no Marmite on the supermarket shelves. Now what?
In the book I am reading, Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away by Christie Watson, the patriarch of a Nigerian family, Alhaji, is never without a jar of Marmite, using it to smear on anyone suffering any affliction. It is his miracle cure-all.
There doesn’t seem to be any medical foundation in this as far as I could find, but Marmite’s health benefits are well documented – when it’s eaten. In fact, there’s nothing bad about it at all, other than a fairly high salt content. Maybe I’m reckless, but 5 grams containing 7% of an adult’s daily recommended intake doesn’t sound too dangerous.
Something every Marmite lover has been painfully aware of is that there has been a shortage of it, on and off, since 2020. The reason is quite simple: lockdown alcohol bans. Marmite SA (owned by Pioneer Foods) wasn’t particularly interested in engaging with me to answer questions, but it did send a press release, in which it refers to “Marmageddon”, ha ha.
“Our yeast supply was constrained with the alcohol ban during lockdown and the production of Bovril (that uses significantly less yeast to produce) was prioritised,” it said. “Supply has since been restored; however, we are still trying to catchup [sic] on the demand to fill the empty pipeline. In addition to the yeast challenge we experienced a national shortage of one of the other raw materials, which is key to produce these products.”
I asked what that material was, but crickets.
“Based on the above challenges, we are focussing [sic] only on the production of 250g Marmite & 250g Bovril until these SKU’s [sic] are fully recovered.”
SKU is a Stock Keeping Unit, or barcode.
“Stock on Marmite has started filtering back into distribution depots and Marmite is back on limited shelfs and we will continue to filter back on shelf during October,” it continues. “We will continue to take the month of October and November to build stock of the 250g Marmite & Bovril Jars. Once 250g stock are fully replenished, the 125g will be targeted for production.
“We are monitoring the process to ensure that stock returns to all depots as soon as possible to service.”
Although a human response was as absent as Marmite has been, the promise has been upheld; in my local Checkers (Constantia Emporium because everybody’s been asking on my Facebook post), it has returned to its place between the fish paste and Bovril, which had previously been empty. No one had rearranged anything to fill the space; perhaps they were sending shoppers a message.
SAB was more forthcoming with information, confirming that yes, during the lockdown it reduced production at its breweries due to the alcohol restrictions which resulted in less wet yeast being available for it to sell to Pioneer Foods (owned by PepsiCo), said Sphe Vundla, Brand Director: SAB Corporate.
“This is one of many examples of the impact of alcohol bans, and demonstrates wider-reaching consequences than one would expect.
“Volumes were only significantly impacted during the first lockdown in March 2020. We made significant strides during the other lockdown periods where yeast was available at lower volumes.”
Brewer’s yeast is one of the main ingredients for Marmite, explained Vundla. “SAB has been supplying yeast to Pioneer Foods for a number of years. We currently supply yeast from our Alrode and Chamdor breweries, and we see this relationship as one that expresses our efforts at economic recovery through the lives and livelihoods impacted in the value chain.”
The truly excellent news now is that SAB will continue to supply yeast to Pioneer Foods. “At this stage we do not anticipate a shortage of yeast,” said Vundla.
“It is most frustrating when we cannot find Marmite on the shelves. When you need that salty goodness, whether on toast or cooking, it’s a craving that’s difficult to satisfy,” said my friend Tracy Essendrup, who likes to eat it at least a couple times a week on toast, often just a spoonful out of the jar. Insert wide-eye emoji.
Opinions on Marmite vs Bovril are varied (the latter contains meat extract) but Tracy said she is lucky not to be vegetarian so Bovril is a definite substitute in times of no Marmite. “I prefer to keep both on hand,” she said, adding that she will be happy, very happy, when she gets her hands on Marmite again. “Git in mah belleh,” she said, rubbing her tummy and licking her lips.
Obviously, I couldn’t stop here, not when there’s an entire internet just waiting to fill my head with more trivia which would be useful at dinner parties and social gatherings for chit chat, if those were things I still did. World Marmite Day is on September 28, when apparently “people across the world treat themselves to a savory food spread made from yeast extract” – as if they only do it on that day.
I’m not much of a Marmite fan but I do like a thin scraping of it on toast with lots of butter, topped with grated mature Cheddar or sliced hard boiled egg – but Marmite itself has had a long running advertising campaign with the slogan “You Either Love It Or Hate It”. I think it’s rather nice to embrace the either/or concept with no grey or muddy areas in the middle. No ambivalence. No wishy-washy. Pick a side and stick to it.
As a result of this slogan, the phrase has become a truism to be used to describe anything divisive. It’s even in the Cambridge Dictionary: “UK informal. something or someone that some people like very much and other people dislike very strongly: He is something of a Marmite presenter – you either love him or you can’t bear him.”
Marmite was invented in 1902 by German scientist (in the UK) Justus von Liebig when he discovered leftover brewer’s years could be concentrated, bottled and eaten. Good for him! He can take his place alongside those who saw the possibilities of coffee and cacao beans. Vitamins, can you believe, were only discovered about nine or 10 years later, and that’s when it was realised what a great source of Vitamin B Marmite is. British troops in World War 1 were issued jars of it as part of their rations.
The image on the recognisable-anywhere label shows a marmite, a French word for a large, covered earthenware or metal cooking pot; Marmite was originally supplied in earthenware pots but since the 1920s has been sold in glass jars.
The folic acid in Marmite was used to treat anaemia in mill workers in Bombay, India, in the 1930s, and to combat malnutrition by Suriya-Mal workers during the 1934-5 malaria epidemic in Sri Lanka.
On toast or with a spoon from the jar may be the fairly obvious ways to get some Marmite into you, but it can be made into a drink, and added to soups and stews for an umami punch. It has been used in a cocktail, with chocolate, and peanut butter, and Nigella Lawson makes a pasta dish with it. “I know the combination of pasta and Marmite sounds odd to the point of unfeasibility [sic],” she admits, but she backs it up with logic about savouriness and saltiness. As for the various limited edition Marmites over the years, the Guinness one makes the most sense and the Champagne one the least. It was a Valentine’s Day gimmick, which goes to show people will throw their money at any old rubbish if it’s marketed hard enough.
South Africa has its very own section on the Marmite Wikipedia page, where it tells us the Marmite-flavoured cheese spread (scorned by most aficionados) is “light in texture and contains a hint of Marmite, making in more palatable to Marmite novices”. Lancewood makes a full cream cheese spread with Marmite.
“Also immensely popular in South African baking corners is a sweet and savoury tea cake that is topped with a hint of Marmite-butter and grated cheese,” says Wikipedia. Thanks to Tracy, I have the recipe to share, as well as some scrumptious sounding muffins.
Tracy’s Marmite, biltong and cheese muffins
150 g biltong, finely chopped
3 Tbsp butter, melted
2 cups cake flour
2 tsp baking powder
2 Tbsp sugar
1 cup milk
1 cup cheddar cheese, grated
3 Tbsp Marmite
Handful of chopped fresh chives
Pinch of salt
Heat oven to 190°C and butter up your muffin tins.
Mix the melted butter and chives together and set aside to cool slightly.
In a bowl, add the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt and mix with a spoon.
In a separate large bowl add the eggs, milk and Marmite and give a light whisking, then add the butter and chive mixture, the grated cheese and chopped biltong pieces.
Give it a good mix to combine.
Add the flour mixture to the egg mixture and stir with a spoon in a folding motion until combined.
Fill the muffin tins to ⅔ full and bake until golden brown (about 20 minutes).
Remove them from the tins and let them cool on a wire rack. DM/TGIFood
The writer supports Ladles Of Love, which in six years, has grown from serving 70 meals at its first soup kitchen, to one of the most prolific food charity organisations in South Africa.
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