For the better part of a century, Vegemite has divided families and friends around the world. To date we've enjoyed over one billion jars and nearly 90 billion servings. But whether you're an Edger (spread to the perimeter of your toast), Streaker (apply sparingly) or Nudist (sans butter or margarine), the iconic Aussie spread turns 90 next Friday, charging past the average Australian life expectancy. While it may not be the most epicurean ingredient, Vegemite scores a tick of approval from most of Australia's top chefs.
Shannon Bennett of Vue de Monde fame is a “less is more kind of guy” when it comes to Vegemite. During service Bennett coats eel with white chocolate and tweezes edible flowers, but like 40 per cent of Australians he begins most days with Vegemite, pairing it with quality butter on artisan toast. Bennett refers to Vegemite affectionately. His four children have been “on it” since they were young, and Bennett himself is addicted: “I'm trying to cut down carbs in the morning,” he says, “but I still can't resist the convenience or the taste of it.”
Bennett is internationally recognised for his creative cooking techniques, but he doesn't see a place for Vegemite in the kitchen. “I think it should be a breakfast item. But that's only me, and food is all about opinion,” he says. Bennett is part of a majority who consider Vegemite nothing more than a breakfast condiment, even though Kraft Food intended the spread to be incorporated as an ingredient from the start. When Vegemite first graced our grocers in 1923, it was advertised as “Delicious on sandwiches and toast, and improving the flavours of soups, stews and gravies.” Today, the Vegemite website features recipes from chicken casserole to swordfish with Vegemite and walnut pesto.
Although not Australian owned, every jar of Vegemite is produced in Port Melbourne, with 90 per cent of the ingredients sourced from Australia.
Sydney-based chef Dan Hong (Ms G's, El Loco and Mr Wong) cooks with Vegemite more than he eats it. “Vegemite has a lot of umami qualities… it's really savoury, it has that meaty flavour,” he says. On Australia Day last year, El Loco's secret taco – a regular special where diners don't know what taco they've ordered until it is in front of them – was kangaroo marinated in Vegemite with a Vegemite mayonnaise. Back in Melbourne, Chin Chin's Benjamin Cooper also uses the much-loved breakfast staple in Japanese-style lamb braises. “It fits with Japanese food because it's quite like miso,” he says.
Cooper is one of the eight out of 10 Australians with a jar of Vegemite always in the kitchen. He regularly beefs up his braises with spoonfuls of the stuff, cooking down stocks until another dimension of meatiness kicks in. He even kept some in his cupboard during a five-year stint in England, although he never converted any Britons into Vegemite lovers. But on occasion, the English convert themselves. Darren Purchese from Melbourne's Burch & Purchese grew up on Marmite in the Motherland, but switched to Vegemite when he moved to Melbourne. “When I first came over I wouldn't eat Vegemite… I was getting mum to send over Marmite. I got the taste for Vegemite and now I use it all the time… I reckon you could live off the stuff,” he says.
After working in his sweet studio all day, the saltiness of Vegemite is a savoury sanctuary for Purchese. He spreads it thickly on Baker D. Chirico seeded toast with Myrtleford butter, “so it's dripping down my arm,” he says. Purchese often indulges in Parmesan Vegemite popcorn, mixing butter and a tablespoon of Vegemite in a pan until glossy, then pouring it over hot popcorn and adding an avalanche of grated cheese. He's yet to explore Vegemite in his Willy Wonka-esque shop, although he hinted at a caramel Vegemite crumble with a salted oat base next Australia Day.
Adam D'Sylva (Coda and Tonka in Melbourne) is one chef who grew up as a happy little Vegemite, despite his Italian and Indian heritage. “Vegemite has a unique flavour, but there's a nice balance to it also,” he says. D'Sylva is what's commonly referred to as a Wormer, sandwiching crackers loaded with butter and Vegemite together so that squiggly worms escape from the cracker holes. Unlike D'sylva, chef Paul Cooper from Sydney's Bishop Sessa is a Vegecadoer (one who adds avocado to their Vegemite toast). He eats it daily with his 18-month-old daughter, who's becoming a Vegecadoer just like her dad.
Over 234 serves of Vegemite are in the process being enjoyed somewhere in the world while you're reading this sentence. If you were to line up a single year's consumption of Vegemite toast, it would create a bready trail long enough to wrap around Earth more than 3.5 times. The MoVida Sydney staff account for a steady slice of these statistics. Head chef and Vegemite poster boy James Campbell feeds the kitchen team Vegemite on the previous night's sourdough for breakfast most mornings. Campbell grew up in western Victoria on a cattle station and enjoys his Vegemite for breakfast, lunch and tea. “I like the irony of it,” he says, “it flies in the face of everything culinary and balanced.”
With over 22 million jars sold every year, Campbell is onto something when he points out that whether you love it or hate it, Vegemite is “part of our DNA”.
After 90 years on Aussie shelves, one thing is for certain: Vegemite will outlive us all.
Head chef of Melbourne's MasterChef pop-up Monty Koludrovic created this recipe, inspired by series four contestant Julia Taylor. Food critic Larissa Dubecki described it as "a patriotic petit four".
Vegemite caramel chocolate cups (makes 10)
10 dark chocolate cups*
400g tin condensed milk
Place an unopened can of condensed milk into a saucepan of boiling water, cook for 4 hours topping up the water as needed to ensure the saucepan doesn't boil dry.
Transfer the can to the fridge to cool. When cool, thoroughly combine the tin's contents with the vegemite and transfer into a piping bag. Pipe the mixture into chocolate cups and finish with a pinch of salt.
*Chocolate cups are available from most supermarkets
**Black salt available from specialty stores however pink salt can be used as an alternative - just less appealing visually
How do you like to eat Vegemite? On toast with a thick or thin scraping? Or with avocado? And if you cook with it, we'd love to know in what dish. Jump on the comments and share your thoughts.