Marmite, Vegemite, and...Cenovis? A tale of salty yeast spreads
Since it was reported a couple of weeks ago (erroneously, as it turns out) that Vegemite was a banned substance in the U.S., there's been renewed interest in the mysterious black spread from Australia, and its bitter rival in the yeast-extract world from the UK, Marmite.
But, did you know that Switzerland, the otherwise sane land of beautiful mountains and secretive banks, has its own black, viscous, salty yeast spread? Yes it does, and its name is Cenovis.
As you can see, Cenovis comes in a fairly straightforward jar (made of plastic), or in a tube. You may think it's funny that a spread should come in a toothpaste-like tube, but in Switzerland a lot of food products come in such tubes - mayonnaise, tomato paste, fish paste, dog food. (Okay, not dog food.)
Like its more famous counterparts, Cenovis is a by-product of the beer brewing process. The ingredient list says that it is fortified with Vitamin B1 (Thiamin), though I am fairly sure that the nutritional makeup of all three yeast spreads is quite similar. Unlike the Kraft-owned Vegemite or the Unilever-owned Marmite, Cenovis is still made by a company called, quaintly, Cenovis S.A., based in Geneva. Their web site says that Cenovis used to be included in Swiss Army rations. Since they are beer brewing by-products, they are all vegetable based. (Bovril, a similar product, is traditionally made of beef extract so is not included here.)
A side-by-side yeasty comparison
Marmite, Vegemite, and Cenovis are all quite similar yet distinctly different. Since I had on hand jars of all three products (Vegemite and Marmite were procured last week in England; Marmite is available in Switzerland in some department store food halls, but I've never seen Vegemite), I decided to do a simple comparison.
Following are my findings on this weighty matter.
Both Vegemite and Cenovis come in fairly plain, straight jars (or in toothpaste tubes for Cenovis, as noted above). Cenovis does have a nice Swiss-theme paper cutout kind of design on it.
But in terms of packaging, the Marmite jar wins hands down. Made of brown glass, it is nicely rounded. The logo font is curved to fit, and there's a cartoonish pot marked Marmite, in reference to the French meaning of the word (pot). (Marmite is in fact named after its container.) It's a timeless, classic and lovable design.
All three are dark brown-black, but Vegemite is slightly darker in color than the other two. It's also the least sticky one - the consistency is sort of like that of a fruit butter. It is opaque and matte, not shiny.
Marmite is the most sticky and viscous one - the consistency is like that of a toffee syrup, and very shiny.
Cenovis is somewhere in between - shiny and slightly sticky, but not as viscous as Marmite.
But the most important test is taste. The standard way to eat these spreads is to put them on bread, toast or a plain cracker with butter, so that's how they were consumed. (I was out of toast bread.)
N00bs People who have not grown up with any of these yeast spreads may have heard fearful stories of how disgusting they are and such. The most common problem with yeast spread neophytes is spreading way too much of it on. If you spread it on as thickly as you might a jam, you are headed towards disaster, horror, and a lifelong loathing of anything dark and viscous.
The difficult thing though is that the amount of spread to use differs from spread to spread. From my tests, the optimum amount of Marmite (M) per 1 teaspoon of butter (B) is 1/8th of a teaspoon, or a 1:8 M:B ratio. Vegemite (V) on the other hand is less salty and less intense in flavor, so you can go up to 1/4 teaspoon, or a 1:4 V:B ratio. Cenovis (C) comes somewhere in between, but is closer to Marmite in saltiness, so the 1:8 C:B ratio works well. You can make the argument that Marmite and Cenovis are more economical in this case.
In terms of flavor, Marmite is the strongest, with a sort of 'meaty' taste. Cenovis shows its brewing roots more, with a beer-ish undertone. Vegemite has a very slight fishy taste to me, plus the taste of dessicated onion flakes.
So the winner is...
Well I must admit to a bias towards Marmite, since I spent some childhood years in England consuming marmite-and-butter-sandwiches for tea. However I must say that Cenovis is surprisingly tasty, and has an adult air to it due to that beer undertone. Its only drawback is that as far as I know, it's not available outside of Switzerland. Swiss expatriates do not seem to have as strong an emotional attachment to yeast spread as Brit and Aussie expats do.
My least favorite by far is Vegemite. This may get me banned for life from ever entering the great nation of Australia. The fishy-oniony undertone just doesn't do it for me at all, I'm afraid. One day though I look forward to trying the Vegemite alternatives said to be available in Australia, such as Aussie-mite and Mightymite. All in the name of research.