Wednesday, December 30, 2009


Generally speaking, there is not much danger in being an Australian abroad.

Unlike Americans, who run the risk of being dragged into all a manner of unpleasant discussions with regards to their president, their politics, and their culture, Australians can escape with just a few potshots at their drinking habits - and if those firing the volleys are British - the performance of their cricket team. No-one has a bone to pick with the Australians. They're quite content to make silly references to Crocodile Dundee.

Unless Vegemite comes up. Then all bets are off.

Vegemite, for the uninitiated, is a dark, sticky sandwich spread that looks like engine grease and tastes like concentrated soy sauce. It is apparently rich in Vitamins B1 and B2. Its television jingle is bested only by the one for Aeroplane Jelly in sheer irritation quotient.*

Consumption of Vegemite involves generously buttering two slices of bread, and then applying the thinnest layer possible of Vegemite to one slice before putting the two together. (If you are an Australian schoolchild, you might also add a slice of cheddar cheese.) Applying a layer of Vegemite to each side, or applying anything other than the thinnest layer possible, is... inadvisable.

As you might guess, Vegemite is an acquired taste. As you might also guess from my description, I never really acquired it. I'll eat Vegemite if there's nothing else available (or if I'm suffering a severe Vitamin B deficiency), but otherwise, I'll pass. And so when it comes up in conversation, I will either cheerfully join in the mockery, or offer an apology - whichever seems most appropriate.

I've heard many people recount their first encounters with Vegemite. As far as I can tell, they fall into three categories:

The Lemming. In which a friend wants confirmation that Vegemite is, indeed, just as awful as he or she thinks it is. Catchphrases: "This is the most revolting stuff I've ever eaten", "I'm not sure this qualifies as food", "You have to try this stuff to understand just how disgusting it is."

The Practical Joke. In which a friend, thinking that Vegemite must be something Australians like to feed to unsuspecting foreigners as a practical joke, decides to pass on the favor. Catchphrases: "I brought you this amazing stuff from Australia!", "No, you need to spread it on more thickly", "I know it looks terrible, but it tastes great."

The Unknown Horror. In which an unsuspecting foreigner doesn't experience Vegemite for him or herself, but gifts it to a friend anyway. Catchphrases: "I got you this stuff from Australia - I'm not quite sure what it is, but the natives love it", "They say it's a sandwich spread", "It's very popular. It must be pretty good."

The best (worst?) story I've heard belongs in the third category.

As Isobel tells it, she was five years old when her father came back from a business trip with an individual-serving container of Vegemite that he'd picked up on the plane. He had no idea what it was, and she, having never before encountered any sticky brown foodstuff that wasn't chocolate-based, assumed that Vegemite was similar. She took a generous spoonful. Her reaction, as you might imagine, was traumatized.

Stories like Isobel's make me think that a mere apology for the culinary atrocity created by my crazy compatriots may not be sufficient. I think it probably does take chocolate - and quite a lot of it - to compensate.

Which is why I'm going to invoke Nutella, the glorious Italian hazelnut-chocolate spread, as a sort of anti-Vegemite. I don't know that I can say anything about the marvels of Nutella that hasn't already been said. Like Vegemite, it's brown and sticky, but unlike Vegemite, it's chocolately and delicious, an absolute culinary joy. The simplest way to eat it is to slather it - thickly - on plain white sandwich bread, but it's quite happy in the company of butter and sugar too, as the pound cake below will attest.

If you've had an unhappy encounter with Vegemite, consider this a peace offering. If you haven't... well, if anyone tells you they brought you a present from Australia of the edible variety, and it's not a package of Tim Tams... you won't eat it, right?

*YouTube at your own risk.

Nutella Swirl Pound Cake

I found a reference to Nutella swirl pound cake on another blog when I was trying to figure out if anyone else had written about pound cakes and bumps. Nutella is a dense substance, however, so this pound cake contains a little baking powder to help with the rise.

(Serves one. Cake may be wrapped and frozen.)

Preheat oven to 325F. Ready a two-cup loaf pan.

Place a stick of salted butter in a large mixing bowl and let sit at room temperature until the butter is easily squashed with a fork. Add half a cup of white sugar, and cream the mixture together with a fork until smooth.

Stir in a quarter-teaspoon of vanilla essence, and a quarter-teaspoon of salt.
Crack in one egg, and beat until smooth. Crack in a second egg; beat until the mixture is thick and smoothish (it will look slightly curdled.)

Fold in a scant cup of flour and one-eighth of a teaspoon of baking powder. The batter should be smooth and creamy.

Spoon one-third of the batter into the baking pan. Add a generous dollop of Nutella, and use a spoon to spread it out. (Resist the urge to lick the spoon.) Spoon another third of the batter into the baking pan, and add another generous dollop of Nutella. (Keep resisting the urge to lick the spoon.) Spoon in the remaining batter, and run a skewer through the mixture to swirl it together. Give the pan a gentle shake to smooth out the top. Transfer the pan to the oven.

(Okay, now you can give in to that urge. Lick away.)

Bake for an hour, or until a skewer stuck in the middle comes out with only Nutella on it. Remove the pan from the oven. Let the cake cool in the pan for five minutes, then carefully turn it out on a wire rack. Allow to cool completely.

To serve, cut into generous slices. Skip the fork and lick your fingers.


Lindsey@pickyeatings said...

I've never encountered vegemite, and I probably won't go out of my way to do so anytime soon.

Now nutella on the other hand...I had some on day old french bread the other day. Heaven.

Cakelaw said...

LOL - this cake made with Vegemite would be dreadful, but with Nutella, it sounds fab. I think Vegemite is OK, but it's not a staple at my place.

cmeckhardt said...

Wow, that sounds lovely. I can't wait to have a kitchen full of my things again so I can get back into baking.

In the appalling food vein, I have been tricked into trying kimchee jellyfish and jollied into trying natto (the latter by people who like it). Natto was much, MUCH worse. I was frankly amazed I lived through the experience.

Uwajimaya, here in Seattle, has an aisle where one of the headings on the sign is for natto. <shivertwitch>

adele said...

Lindsey - Don't. There are better uses for morbid curiosity. :P

Cakelaw - Cake with... oh, I shudder to even think of it!

cmeckhart - I admit, I like natto. But kimchee jellyfish? I can't quite imagine such a thing...

~~louise~~ said...

I'll take Nutella over Marmite (Vegemite) any day. It seems Vegemite was invented by one Dr. Cyril P. Callister for one reason or another. I plan on posting about him and it one day.

In the meantime, I'm dreaming Nutella Swirl Pound Cake at the moment.

Thanks for sharing, Adele. I'm going to save this link for my Vegemite post:)

Bitsy said...

I can't say I like Natto, I might even take Vegemite over it. (I'm told its Japan's revenge for peanut butter, but I think it must be an over reaction.)

Clearly somewhere on the internet the is a list of food that not-natives in X country find appalling. If there isn't I think it must be started.

Is this the jingle?

adele said...

Louise - The story I heard was that someone looked at the gunk left over in the beer vats after the fermenting process and wondered if there was any use for it. (That's still basically what Vegemite is.)

Bitsy - I think natto predates peanut butter, so I don't know if that explanation pans out. I'd say corn pizza might be a better revenge. :P

Yes, that's the jingle. *shudder*

~~louise~~ said...

That's hysterical Adele. I'll remember that:)

Joh said...

Oh my god.
I have to say, I have eaten worse things than Vegemite. But I can't say I've eaten better things than Nutella. I'm totally making this. Sigh.

adele said...

Joh - What was worse?