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New Zealand’s favourite spread
Science came to the rescue of malnourished Europeans in the 19th century. Concentrated extracts of meat were developed, leading to such well known products as Oxo and Bovril. Alternatively, there was a yeast derivative, made by the Marmite Food Extract Company. It began in Staffordshire, England, in 1902 and took its name from marmite, a French pot used for making stew and gravy. As well as being promoted as a sandwich spread and a tasty additive for soups, stews and savoury dishes, Marmite was rich in newly discovered vitamins.
Marmite was sold in New Zealand in the early 1900s, imported in bulk from England and repackaged by the Sanitarium Health Food Company. When supplies were disrupted by two World Wars, Sanitarium was determined to begin producing Marmite of its own. This plan was finally realised in the late 1940s, but by then the company no longer had the New Zealand yeast extract market to itself. In 1923 an enterprising Australian merchant, Fred Walker, decided to provide Marmite with some competition. He developed a new product which he called Parwill, on the basis that if “Ma might”, “Pa will”. Not surprisingly, this punning approach didn’t catch on. After a public competition Walker wisely renamed his product “Vegemite”, now made by Kraft Foods Ltd.
Each year the Sanitarium factory at Papanui in Christchurch manufactures some 750 tonnes of Marmite – “the original yeast spread” – for the South Pacific. Of this, 600 tonnes is consumed in New Zealand.
An acquired taste?
Early jars of Marmite carried the quaint consumer warning that “too much spoils the flavour”. Because of its concentrated formula, other countries such as the United States have been less enthusiastic about the product, finding it too salty and even likening it to “axle grease”. However, Marmite remains popular in countries with historic links to Britain. In India, for example, consumers of the locally produced “super concentrated” product are advised to spread it thinly on “toast, sandwiches and chapattis”. New Zealanders travelling abroad have also shown remarkable allegiance by taking the familiar Marmite from home rather than buying the English-made product.