When I arrived home one evening, I discovered I had been sent a box of magic. Raw, spreadably glutenous, brown yeast extract magic in six incredible different varieties. The note that came with it was clear: "I expect a full review".
In 1902, the Staffordshire town of Burton-on-Trent was the capital of the UK's brewing industry, churning out a wasted slurry of yeast and dead hops as it struggled to meet a weather-obsessed nation's demand for beer. Naturally, this was terrible for the drainage system and a pre-processing solution had to be found. The bitter and tarry substance was therefore whisked up with more tarry and bitter secret ingredients, and then bottled as a salty sandwich spread.
The result was Marmite: it is delicious. And anyone who has ever voluntarily drunk root beer is not allowed to say otherwise. On an unrelated note, only 15% of the 50 million jars made at the Burton factory goes overseas with no interest at all from mainland Europe.
In truth, even home-grown Brits are undecided on the charms of our yeasty paste. Marmite has embraced this dichotomy with the slogan 'Love it or hate it'. Even Paddington Bear, marmalade lover extraordinaire, has given the other British spread a go:
Despite this controversy, there is one country that is fully behind yeast spread delights: Australia. In 1919, Marmite production was disrupted due to World War I. So horrifically unthinkable was this shortage, that Australia developed its own version. The new down-under spread was named 'Vegemite' after a competition won by two sisters, Hilda and Laurel Armstrong. When Marmite production picked up again, Vegemite was briefly renamed 'Parwill' to give the slogan 'Marmite but Parwill' (i.e. Ma might but Pa will). However, it didn't solve the popularity contest because Marmite is better. Vegemite ultimately won the market share by giving away free cars with their product.
[Small side note: the above history may be slightly biased due to nationalistic loyalties]
For reasons that continue to escape me, it has always been difficult to get Marmite and friends abroad. I can occasionally find Vegemite --a fact that passingly leads me to suspect Marmite fails to fulfil health and safety regulations in many countries-- but even that is a struggle. To receive six jars was therefore pretty good.
SO GOOD I COULD EAT IT ALL WITH MY FINGERS.
No wait, we'll get to that part later.
The six different types are all Australian. They were scooped off the shelf by my friend, May, whose kindness I will never forget, even while suspecting her alternative agenda of removing as much from her country as possible. Even the Marmite jar is the Australian version, made to a slightly different recipe than the original British equivalent. How different are these yeasty jars of goodness? There was only one way to find out.
We started with trying a little of each one on bread. (That's the royal 'we'. Apparently no one I know is prepared to try this with me).
In terms of texture, Vegemite is the most solid. It spreads more like a chilled butter than a jam. The 'Cheesybite' Vegemite, on the other hand, is in the running for the most spreadable. In terms of taste, I have a confession...
I can't tell the difference between Marmite and Vegemite.
I fear this makes me a bad Brit. In a desperate attempt to do my nationality proud, I took a step that May will never forgive me for:
I used a spoon.
And apart from the texture.... nuffin. I am a broken Brit. The Cheesybite Vegemite is definitely different. As the name suggests, it's cheesy. Cheese goes well with Marmite products and it's pretty traditional to have a cheddar cheese and Marmite sandwich. There was also a wonderful period where you could buy Marmite mini cheddars for all your cheesy yeast snack dreams, but the internet is refusing to provide me with any proof these once existed. On the other hand, I did uncover a pair of Marmite earrings, showing the traditional British jar.
The next three Marmite replicas taste similar to one another, but different from the UK/Aussy showdown. On their website, OzEmite manufactures, Dick Smith's, claim their product is superior to Vegemite because it doesn't use the waste products of the brewing process. Instead, it purpose grows the yeast and makes the waste products up fresh. OzEmite is distinctive for an additional strong smoky sweet taste, like a BBQ chilli sauce. This might well fit with the beach BBQs non-Australians are convinced happen night and day in the land of kangaroos.
Promite also has a smoky BBQ tang and is slightly sweeter (I admit, this is pushing it... OzEmite and Promite are pretty similar). Their website differentiates it from Vegemite by advertising the fact it's easier to spread. Promite has a slightly stickier consistency that the other spreadable 'mites but is easily smeared onto bread for a sandwich safe to leave in the communal refrigerator outside the UK and Australia.
Confusingly, when you try to hunt for MightyMite's website, you find yourself on a site selling guitars. Their actual site has a picture demonstrating why small children should never be left unsupervised with yeast, and no description of their chosen unique selling feature. Maybe it is simply the laughter of letting your child lick his fingers in public when on holiday.
MightyMite also has a sweet, BBQ tang but does taste noticeably different from Promite and OzEmite. However, I find I'm out of adjectives to describe subtleties in salty yeasty mixes. It's a lighter shade that the other 'mites (apart from the Cheesybite Vegemite) and probably the one I like least. But I confess I mainly draw that opinion when using a spoon. For beginners, I always recommend using bread.
So there we have it: 6 'mites of magic. My top choices remain Marmite and Vegemite, although the Cheesybite Vegemite is a genius addition. They also go well with fruit loaf, but unfortunate none of that was able to stay around for the photo shoot.
I leave you will the showdown between Marmite and Vegemite, as tested by Americans. My favourite is the part where one contestant sobs that she thought it was going to be OK....