What’s your Poison?

Marmalade sales are up, thanks, it seems, to Paddington.

I’ve been doing my bit for years to keep Frank Cooper in profit, but in my house it is a thankless and solitary (if secretly tasty) path I tread. Foreign spreads are coming over and taking our toast, so to speak, notably ‘chocolate spread’, better known as Nutella.

I should be happy, therefore, because marmalade is pushing back, but there is talk of it being time for a re-branding. Marmalade might be about to go sweet.

Marmalade, properly done, is a bitter spread, and this I suspect is the source of its unpopularity. People like a quick sweet fix. But like the Pepsi challenge, which was based on the premise that one sip of Pepsi, a sweeter cola, is more satisfying than one sip of Coke, this is an error. More people in fact drink Coke than Pepsi, because sweetness cloys. You cannot eat as much jam as you think, but marmalade is a stayer.

Take this logic to its natural conclusion and you will eventually come up with something like Marmite. I am also fond of Marmite. I have a happy memory of an American friend in Rome asking if he could have a bit on his toast when he saw me putting it on mine (I had sourced the bottle at great expense from a small shop near the Vatican that specialised in British food, if you can credit it), and then trying to process the experience with a look of panicked bewilderment: this was not some sticky molasses, some black sugary concentrate; this was yeast extract, a punishing experiment in bitterness that has to be treated with respect, even by its aficionados.

The British take a pride in the inedibility of Marmite, just as I do in my house in my predilection for bitter marmalade. It may be nothing more than an example of what Freud called the narcissism of small differences, where couples will insist on (and in my experience talk at great length about) their trivial differences or preferences, as a way of retaining some degree of separateness and self. The British like to be different, or like to think of themselves as different. They are not alone in this (I could, for example, underpin my argument with a scholastic consideration of the differences between Marmite and Vegemite), but neither are they in the least behind in it. And given that I have just written 400 words on the topic of one small difference of my own, neither, it seems, am I.

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