We’ve all got childhood memories of eating Marmite. Mine are of it spread very, very thinly on buttered white bread – just a hint of that salty savouriness. Any more would have been too much because Marmite really does pack a punch – too much really is too much. And, as the advertising slogan goes, you either love it or hate it.
But even if spreading it on toast or having it on pasta as Nigella suggests is not your thing, incorporating a little bit of that black, salty, sticky goo into savoury dishes can really give them a deep, complex flavour that dishes made of purely plant-based ingredients can sometimes lack.
So what exactly is Marmite – or Vegemite as our friends down under call it? Basically, it is the yeast left over from beer brewing, mixed with vegetables extracts and vitamins to create the dark, intensely flavoured paste we know so well.
It’s a most peculiar and quintessentially British institution but in fact it was a German, Justus von Leibig, who discovered at the end of the nineteenth century that brewers’ yeast could be bottled and eaten. Marmite was first produced commercially in the United Kingdom at the beginning of the twentieth century
Its characteristic flavour has been defined as umami. The word coined by a Japanese chemist to describe a certain rich, savoury flavour that can be found in foods ranging from meat, anchovy, parmesan, mushrooms and cheese to tomatoes and asparagus and particularly in dashi, the kelp-based stock which is a staple of Japanese cooking. The source of the distinctive flavour, he discovered, was glutamate and he then went on to produce and patent the notorious flavour enhancer monosodium glutamate.
Whilst Marmite and its qualities remain a mystery to most of our American friends, Kenji Lopéz-Alt chef/scientist of the website Serious Eats is hailing our little nursery food favourite as one of the great “umami bombs”.
At Miller Green we use that clever little paste in several of our dishes to add a bit of extra oomph. We tend to avoid vegan meat substitutes but we have discovered that something rather rich and meaty happens when puy lentils and Marmite come together and use that combination in both our lasagne and our cottage garden pie. We are also experimenting with the combo for a number of new dishes.
But umami deliciousness aside, the other tiptop benefit is that it is an incredibly rich source of vitamin B12, the one nutrient that can be in short supply in a totally plant-based diet.
So, for both for its flavour-enhancing and nutritional qualities, Marmite is and will remain a pantry staple in the Miller Green kitchen. And, even better, a little goes a very long way.
Vegan puy lentil lasagne
For the lentil ragù
200g/7oz puy lentils
½ tsp salt
1 bay leaf
1 tbsp olive oil for frying
1 onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
110g/4oz mushrooms, finely diced
110g/4oz leek, finely sliced
110g/4oz carrot, finely diced
110g/4oz celery, finely diced
1 x 400g/14oz can chopped tomatoes
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
½ tsp dried oregano
½ -1 tsp Marmite
1 tbsp tomato puree
Splash of vegan red wine
6-9 sheets durum wheat lasagne
Grated No-Moo Melty vegan cheese
For the béchamel sauce
110g/4oz vegan margarine
85g/3½ oz plain flour
1½ pints soy or nut milk (we use a coconut based milk called Koko)
½ tsp Colmans mustard powder
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Sprig of fresh thyme, leaves picked
Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas 4.
For the lentil ragù, cover the lentils with cold water and add the salt, bay leaf and thyme. Cook for 15-20 minutes, or until the lentils are tender, then drain. Add a little more water if the mixture looks dry during cooking.
Heat the olive oil in a lidded frying pan over a medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, mushrooms, carrots, celery and leek and fry for about five minutes, or until softened.
Stir in the cooked lentils and simmer gently for five minutes, then add a splash of red wine. Let it bubble away and then stir in the tomato purée and the oregano. Add the tomatoes and cover with a lid and simmer on a low heat for 10-15 minutes. Stir through the Marmite and season, to taste, with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Meanwhile, for the béchamel sauce, melt the vegan margarine in a medium saucepan over a medium-high heat then mix in the flour and the mustard powder and stir until it forms a roux. Gradually add the soy or nut milk, whisking constantly, until the mixture is smooth.
Simmer gently, stirring constantly, until the sauce starts to thicken, then season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper and stir through the fresh thyme leaves. Remove from heat.
Cook the lasagne sheets in a wide pan with about two inches of water for about five minutes to soften.
To assemble the lasagne, spread a small amount of béchamel over the bottom of a baking dish and half of the lentil ragù on top of that. Add a lasagna sheet and cover this with half of the béchamel sauce. Then add the other half of the ragù and place another lasagne sheet over the top. Cut the lasagne sheets with scissors to fit as necessary. Finish with a layer of béchamel sauce. Sprinkle over the vegan cheese and bake in the oven for 30 minutes, or until bubbling and golden-brown.
Serve with a green salad.