In this extraordinary world of ours there are Marmitians and Bovrillians and never the twain shall meet – unless on the field of battle. Marmite is that brownish, glutinous stuff that comes in black jars with yellow lids. Bovril, on the other hand, is an ebony, viscous relish (scrumptious on hot buttered crumpets) that comes in black jars with red lids.
Let’s get the nasty part over with. Marmite is a salty pure yeast extract that is a by-product of the brewing industry. In 1902 the Marmite Food Extract Company Ltd came into being and the following year Marmite (French for small cooking pot) won two gold medals at the Universal food and Cookery Exhibition. By the outbreak of the First World War, Marmite was well established and recognised for its nutrition and health benefits. No matter that it tasted – and still does – yucky.
Bovril is a tasty, salty, meat extract, created by John Lawson Johnston (1839-1900) years before Marmite was even heard of. Johnston’s uncle was a butcher in Edinburgh, Scotland, and his nephew decided to pursue the same trade, eventually taking over the shop and becoming well established. One day he experimented with the large quantity of beef trimmings left over to concoct his own meat glaze (or beef stock), which he concentrated by heating. It sold so well that he was soon able to open a factory.
In 1871, Johnston (right, caricatured in Vanity Fair) emigrated to Canada. Three years later the French Army contracted him to supply its forces with preserved beef products. Recalling his past success, he came up with Johnston’s Fluid Beef, a thicker version of beef stock. Looking for a name, he seized on the Latin for ox (bovis) and, in a fit of inspiration, recalled Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel The Coming Race (1871), which describes a subterranean world occupied by descendants of an antediluvian civilization. Living in networks of subterranean caverns, they depend on an “all-permeating fluid” called “Vril”. The novel was popular in the late 19th century and the word “Vril” came to be associated with “life-giving elixir”. Hence, Bovril.
In 1880, after his factory burned down, Johnston sold his Canadian business and returned to England where he lived at “Bovril Castle” – Kingswood House, Sydenham – while he promoted the Bovril brand across Britain, based on the commercial potential of dietetics. In 1896 he sold the Bovril company for two million pounds, although he stayed on as Chairman until his death in 1900.
In November 2004 Unilever, today’s manufacturers of Bovril, announced that the composition of Bovril was being changed from beef extract to a yeast extract, claiming it was in order to make the product suitable for vegetarians and vegans. However, at that time, fear of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) may also have been a factor. Unilever claimed that most people preferred the new product, although once again it now produces Bovril using beef and chicken.
In 1726 Jonathan Swift published his satirical novel Gulliver’s Travels. It depicts two island nations, Lilliput and Blefuscu, neighbours in the South Indian Ocean. Both are inhabited by tiny people and ruled over by a self-styled emperor. In Lilliput, civil war breaks out over how to crack open a boiled egg. Formerly, all eggs were broken at the larger end, but the Emperor of Lilliput has decreed that they are to be broken at the smaller end. Of such are great quarrels made. Marmitians and Bovrillians had better watch out!