Marmite in a ragù

Health warning: if you are using Marmite in a sauce you are serving to Italians, do not tell them you have done so as this may invoke extreme acts of violence or retching. If you insist on telling them, at least wait until they’ve finished and complimented you on your cooking!

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, my fidanzata hates Marmite with the kind of passion only Italians can muster. So when I cook with it, I don’t tell her. I wait until she’s out of the room, sneak a dollop of the salty heaven into the dish, stir it in quickly then put the jar back in the cupboard as quick as I can.

When I’m making a ragù (meat sauce), I am conscious of trying to balance the various fundamental flavours against each other, to make a ‘wall of taste’ in the mouth. In case you’ve forgotten, these are:

  • Salty
  • Sweet
  • Bitter
  • Umami
  • Sour

The strongest note of these should be the umami, then the bitter and sweet in balance with each other, with just traces of salt and sour. It’s impossible to talk about these precisely, but when adjusting the seasonings, in my mind the proportions are something like: umami 75%, sweet 10%, bitter 10%, salt 3% and sour 2%.

I brown the meat with an onion, which induces the Maillard Reaction: proteins cooked in trace sugars from the onion, which provides most of the umami.

Towards the end of the cooking I use two tablespoons of aceto balsamico to provide a sweet tang.

The acids in the vinegar, as well as the tomatoes, provide a little bitterness, and I also add the juice of half a lemon.

The sour is the least pleasing of all these, but a hint is still necessary, so I rely on any dairy products that may be in the final dish (milk and in a béchamel, mozzarella or parmesan – which is another source of umami) to contribute their natural sourness. Then I forget about that bit.

Now here’s the secret: all of the saltiness is contributed by Marmite. Marmite is also high in umami, so it ‘tops off’ the savouriness of the meat in an incredibly pleasing way. Just a heaped teaspoon in a pan is all that’s needed and nobody will be any the wiser – but there will be ‘something about’ the dish that will make it più delizioso than normal…

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