I’m perched on the sofa and Alex is cooking. He’s an ambitious cook, Alex; he will never whip up something quick and easy – if he wants to cook, then he will make the most complicated stew from scratch and spend hours pottering in the kitchen, the radio on, incredibly focused on endless tasks, piles of empty bowls and carrot peel.
As I write this, he feeds me thin slices of mature cheddar. The supermarket stuff, of the perfectly square sort that comes in a packet. He’s making a lentil pie and I hear the comforting sound of the gas hob, the quiet flame, the pots bubbling. The kitchen smells of soffritto, celery and bay leaves. The room is warm, filled with dense cooking vapour. Outside, it’s still winter – winter always seems to last forever.
When he leaves the room, I quietly go by the pan and steal a spoonful of lentils – even though they’re not quite cooked all the way through yet, still a little crunchy and floury, a good half hour away from becoming a silken mash. I always used to do this with my mum’s sauces, I would tear a piece of bread from a loaf and dunk it in the bubbly sauce, and then my mum would wonder why she had made so little. ‘The tomatoes must have been very watery, the sauce shrunk a lot’.
I bought some baguette from the Japanese bakery earlier. I went in for a couple of pretty, polished custard buns – their surface shiny, a faint eggy smell – but they asked me if I wanted a baguette, someone had cancelled their order. It’s beautiful, a thick crust, a geometrical pattern on the back. I decide to make toast.
There are a lot of things I used to despise as a kid and love now – anything in vinegar, anchovies, capers. But I was already in my twenties when I tried Marmite for the first time, and for years I would go on and on to anyone who would listen about how I thought Marmite was gross and inedible and I didn’t understand it.
Marmite is a strange, thick spread, dark as charcoal, with its aggressive smell and taste that divides couples and families and friends. Its unapologetic sincerity is even in the slogan: you may love it, you may gag (I’m paraphrasing).
And yet a few weeks ago, for some reason, I just felt compelled to try it again. And I loved it. I genuinely loved it. I suddenly understood it, I appreciated its saltiness, the yeast, the savouriness.
It was like when you a see a modern painting and it doesn’t speak to you and then someone explains the story, the painter’s intentions, their life, their pain, and suddenly you see it all on the canvas, in the brushes and curves and splatters of colour – you just get it.
They say it’s an acquired taste. I like the notion of an acquired taste. I’m not sure it’s scientific but I do hope it’s true. I hope that when you try or read or see something a certain number of times, you can learn to appreciate it, to love it. Because if you can train yourself to love everything, then surely it will make life easier?
Alex is still in the middle of the action, I hear cutlery clanking and rattling. I cut a thick slice of baguette, toast it ever so slightly, the edges burning much faster than the soft centre. I smear an indecent amount of butter on it, so much that when it starts melting it treacles down the sides, and then a little marmite, dark and gloopy, salty and yeasty, like unfiltered beer, mixing with the milky sweetness of butter. I eat the toast still enveloped in the artificial warmth of the kitchen. The oven is now on.
Once you start liking Marmite, there’s no going back.