Buying bread from a man in Brussels
He was six foot four and full of muscles
I said, do you speak-a my language?
He just smiled and gave me a vegemite sandwich*
So, twenty three years since I first heard of the stuff, on Men at Work’s album Business as Usual, in a song about the land Down Under, I decide to try to find some vegemite and taste it. Back in 1981 I was under the impression that it was something made from vegetables, as the name seems to imply. Later I learned that it was a yeast product, and salty, and in my head it was kind of gray and grainy. I knew Australian kids eat it from a young age, spread (thinly) on toast; everyone else who has ever tried it seems to think it was nasty. But I like salty things, and I was bored, and looking for ways to procrastinate on my schoolwork; what could be better than a treasure hunt for a new food?
I live in Charlottesville, Virginia. There are more restaurants per capita here than anywhere else in the state, and a fair number of grocery stores and specialty shops, as well. I called Whole Foods and asked if they carried vegemite; the woman I spoke with sounded disgusted at the mere thought. I called Foods Of All Nations, a pricey place where I don’t usually shop, but true to their name, they stock it. So off I went.
A friend of mine tells me I (grocery) shop like a rich person. I buy foods I’ve never heard of, or have heard of but never tried. If you’re on a limited budget, she explains, you stick to tried-and-true favorites. Waste not, want not. Well, Foods of All Nations is the place for a food adventurer. They sell everything from rendered duck fat (make your own pate!) to Turkish Delight (the treats the White Witch fed to Edmond in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe); scores of boxes and bottles and cans of sauces and seasonings and ingredients for taste treats from around the globe. And there, next to the Marmite and the Promite, were assorted jars of Vegemite. I selected the small size.
Back at home, I realized I didn’t have any bread in the house. I cut open and toasted a pita pocket instead, and then mindful of flamingweasel’s instructions, I buttered it. I then opened the vegemite, and got my first surprise. It’s not gray or grainy. It has a rich, dark brown color, and it's thick and smooth in texture. It looks like dark chocolate nutella, or fudge icing that comes ready-made in tubs from Betty Crocker. It smells like a mixture of Guinness and soy sauce. Not surprisingly, that’s pretty much how it tastes, as well.
I liked it, I really liked it.
yeast extract (made from brewers’ or bakers’ yeast),
“natural flavor” (whatever that means)**,
thiamine (Vitamin B1; 25% of the recommended daily value, based on a 2000 calorie diet),
riboflavin (Vitamin B2; 45% DV),
and niacin (Vitamin B3; 25% daily value).
It is manufactured by Kraft Foods, and Kraft is an American company, but the jar I have was manufactured by Kraft in Australia. Vegemite contains no fat, and has only ten calories per serving. The official website contains recipes ranging from breakfast foods (scrambled egg croissants) to dinner and snacks (roast pumpkin and leek risotto; lamb kebabs, frijole dip). I imagine it would be a good addition to sauces or stews because of its dark, rich flavor, but one would have to be careful not to use too much, for fear of the finished product being too salty.
Over 22 million jars of vegemite are now sold every year. From the website:
Kraft has had an on-going commitment since the 1920s to reinforce the message to Australians that Vegemite is nearly five times more concentrated than yeast, making it one of the world's richest sources of the energy giving Vitamin B group. And the best thing for breakfast since sliced bread.
There is now a Happy Little Vegemite Foundation, which aims to give back to the community that has supported the product for over eighty years. The HLV Foundation awards grants to “not for profit organizations who are working in their local community to create a happy, healthy, and safe future for those people under the age of 18”. More information is available on the website.
** golFUR says "natural flavor" is MSG, but DejaMorgana says "Kraft Foods are very good about allergy/sensitivity labelling, and i suspect they
would include MSG as a listed ingredient, not hide it under 'natural flavors'. Vegemite is indeed very rich in glutamate, but this probably comes from the yeast extract, not as an added ingredient."
Post Script: I have returned to the store and bought the supplies for a taste test. Sadly, I must report that both Marmite and Oxo have a sticky consistency, more like caramel sauce or molasses, not as pleasant as the velvet smoothness of vegemite, and they don't taste quite as good, either. (Sorry, Ralphy.)