Love it or hate it, it's more than just Marmite to the British
It's often said about the Brits that they're happy only when they're moaning. Yet with the recent royal wedding, a state visit from President Barack Obama, and nearly 10 weeks of unbroken spring sunshine rendering parts of the country like the Cote d'Azur, for once there really did not seem anything much to complain about. But then Denmark stepped in and banned Marmite - and all hell broke loose.
The name, and indeed the foodstuff itself, may be unfamiliar to many. If you've never tried this glutinous, dark brown savoury spread, originally a by-product of brewing yeast and now a popular condiment that is layered thinly on toast and butter, all I can say is: you're in for a treat. Or not.
That's the problem with Marmite. The mere mention of its name tends to lead to violent disagreements. One thing both proponents and critics do agree on - it's certainly a curious concoction. The author Bill Bryson probably best summed it up when he described it as "an edible yeast extract with all the properties of an industrial lubricant".
Even its manufacturers have grown to embrace the controversy that perpetually surrounds it. Originally marketed in 1902 under the banner "the growing up foodstuff you never grow out of", nowadays the adverting slogan shamelessly trumpets "Marmite - you either love it or you hate it".
No single aspect of British life - not the single European currency, the abolition of the death penalty, not even the decision to allow females to enter the pavilion at Lord's Cricket Ground - divides domestic public opinion more keenly. Even in my own house it causes daily marital strife. I hate the stuff, whereas my wife loves it, spreading it flamboyantly on her toast each morning while I cower against the far wall with a peg over my nose.
Yet, as with a mere handful of products - fish and chips, Rolls-Royce engines and the Last Night of the Proms (a classical music festival, for the uninitiated) - the tiny bulbous jar with its familiar yellow lid has achieved iconic status, until its association with the national identity has rendered it sacrosanct, even among its detractors.
Thus when the Danish government decided last week to order its removal from supermarket shelves, there was only ever going to be one result.
Curiously, the official reason for the Danish ban is not the taste, nor the aroma, but the constituent ingredients. Marmite is "fortified with vitamins", a state of affairs which apparently breaks Danish law. "We prefer our children to consume their vitamins the natural way through fruit and vegetables," said one spokesman by way of explanation.
Needless to say the ban has led to questions being asked in the UK Parliament, while the domestic press has labelled the Danish ban as nothing less than an attack on the British way of life, especially since rumours now abound that the Italian government is about to follow suit. A "Bring back Marmite" campaign has been launched on both sides of the North Sea, while expatriates living in Denmark have promised to defend existing stockpiles with their lives.
Yet this could be only the start. It's all-too-easy to imagine the escalating scenario - the two nations sucked into a tit-for-tat trading war, with Britons refusing to play with Lego bricks and Danes refusing to stock baked beans. Simultaneously a flourishing smuggling industry would spring up, with vans full of mild-mannered British holidaymakers arriving at Danish border crossings, door panels and seat upholstery stashed with secret consignments for sale on the black market in downtown Copenhagen.
Sadly any such attempts seem unlikely to evade detection by the authorities, if only because Marmite has a smell pungent enough to fell an ox at a hundred metres.
In fairness to Britain's Danish cousins, they've rowed back from their bellicose stance in recent days, going to great pains to insist that the product is not actually banned, but merely "unauthorised". It's a legal nicety, but it may be enough to avert the Third World War. In the meantime, the international community holds its breath, hoping for some other puerile controversy to come along for the Brits to whinge about - whereupon of course this latest scandal would be instantly forgotten.
The lesson of all this, meanwhile, is a stark one. Marmite may be thick brown sludge - but by heaven, it's our thick brown sludge.
Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London
Updated: May 30, 2011 04:00 AM