Those who read last week’s post will be aware that I am unequivocally in the ‘love it’ camp. When it comes to Marmite, that is. And since living in Italy I have found that it is practically the only item that I would struggle to do without. But this is less because I am a Brit abroad than it is because it’s been a part of my life for so long it feels as if it has become part of my DNA. It is one of my earliest food memories: my dad always ate it on his breakfast toast every morning and I remember – I swear I do – asking for some of Daddy’s breakfast from my highchair and being given a single buttered soldier to try, with a tiny dab of the magic spread. And from that first intense umami kick I was hooked. Never one for sweet things (initially I couldn’t bear the taste of tea because my mum kept putting sugar in it) I instantly found that distinctive salty tang deeply satisfying and capable of quelling pangs of hunger more effectively than almost anything else. So a Marmite sandwich made from thinly sliced Hovis – the original uncut variety, with its domed crust and the letters embossed on the side – cut into triangles, crusts left on and served on my treasured Bunnykins plate soon became my daily after-school snack, eaten curled up on the sofa in front of Jackanory.
While I soon outgrew Jackanory, then Blue Peter and Crackerjack (and my Bunnykins plate, although I think I still have it somewhere) I have never outgrown the taste of Marmite. More than four decades later a Marmite sandwich remains my go-to snack, the rich savouriness giving all the flavour satisfaction of a proper meal. And as you know, when I am feeling under the weather, it is this that invariably makes it the only thing I have any appetite for. Other than Marmite on toast, of course: the deep glistening brown that looks like melted amber, its sticky trails mingling with the butter melting into the crevices of the fragrant hot toast. Even its never-changing dumpy brown jar makes me feel better: as welcoming as a smiling granny, full of the promise of comfort and cuddles.
I’m guessing there is some algorithm out there that has worked out that I am a Marmite-eating Brit abroad and that I must therefore be longing for some other tastes of home. It seems the most likely explanation for all the online adverts I get for products like Fray Bentos steak and kidney pies, Ambrosia rice pudding and Batchelors mushy peas, even though I’ve never bought or eaten any of these products. There are lots of online businesses selling Brits edible nostalgia, the essentially British products that can’t be found beyond Dover and that some apparently just can’t do without, and their adverts set me to thinking about which other British goodies we do miss, if not rice pudding and mushy peas. Heinz beans? Nope. I’ve never eaten them and the multi-pack of individual tins we brought over with us when we first moved in remains un-opened in the pantry. They used to be a feature of Mr Blue-Shirt’s sitework breakfasts when he was installing ironwork in London, but that was then and this is now. McVitie’s chocolate digestives? Well, kind of. We brought a couple of packets with us for old times’ sake, but the second one went soggy as we don’t actually eat biscuits that much. Heinz tomato ketchup and HP sauce? Yes, we brought bottles of both with us, but according to Mr Blue-Shirt (I can’t stand the stuff) Italian ketchup is barely distinguishable from Heinz, and the HP sauce is in danger of passing its best before date. It used to be Mr Blue-Shirt’s favourite accompaniment to an occasional Sunday morning Full English, or to an even rarer plate of fish and chips. But again, that was then and this is now.
This shift in tastes has not been part of any conscious plan to give up British foods, though. They just no longer fit with the way we live our lives, don’t fit with the climate, don’t fit with the food culture. Added to which we were never big on tinned or packet foods, always preferring to cook from scratch, even when life was at its most manic. Which means that we can still eat English if ever the fancy takes us. Cottage pie? No problem. Toad-in-the-hole? Easy-peasy. Flapjacks? You bet.
The thing is, though, we find that the fancy takes us ever less frequently. It is as if we are sloughing off our British ways as we gradually become more embedded in the Italian way of life – but not in a conscious, deliberate act of ‘giving up’ British things or ‘going native’. It is much more a matter of what feels more appropriate and more natural. And why on earth would we resist, with such a mouth-watering array of fresh ingredients to choose from? Why on earth would we seek to cling to emblems of a country that is no longer our home while rejecting those of our adoptive home – and whose cuisine we have always admired. Are we doing little more than ‘camping out’ and going through the motions of living in Italy? Or is it the real deal? And as it is naturally the latter, does it mean I’m going to have to stop eating Marmite…?