It has (mostly) been such fun, the last 40 years, teaching English to German adults. I learned so much from them all, and entered worlds I had never even imagined – among others the surprising world of margarine.
We only ever spread butter on our bread, when I lived with my parents, and it was always Anchor butter from New Zealand. That yellow saltiness piled onto toast, or a potato or fresh crusty bread was my favourite foodstuff for many years.
A small revolution occured in our fridge in the 1980s with the introduction of the ‘All in one sponge cake’, which used soft margarine, from a tub:
But for most of my life I snobbishly thought margarine was an inferior product.
How margarine is actually made was one of the many things I had never thought about until the day some years ago when I drove to a nearby town to teach English at a company now called CSM. Margarines – including many famous brands – have been produced there since 1910.
Margarine was invented in 1869 by Hippolyte Mège Mouriès, a French food research chemist, in response to Napoleon III’s request for a wholesome butter alternative. Mège Mouriès solidified purified fat, after which the resulting substance was pressed in a thin cloth that formed stearine and discharged oil. For the new product, Mège Mouriès used margaric acid, a fatty acid component isolated in 1813 by the Frenchman Michel Eugène Chevreul. Analyzing the fatty acids that are the building blocks of fats, he singled out one and named it margaric acid, because of the lustrous pearly drops that reminded him of the Greek word for pearls i.e. margarites or margaron.
The modern margarines and fats produced at the factory in Delmenhorst are intricate, sophisticated products especially created for specific purposes and supplied to bakers and food producers all over the world, and every week my students updated me on their latest projects, the challenges and successes. Others at the company develop innovative toppings, coatings, fillings and all those other delicious extras, many of which are used in the neighbouring bakery products factory, which houses the biggest doughnut line in Europe.
I loved listening to what they had to tell me every week. But then came Corona, and then came my decision to have a sabbatical.
Last weekend, for the first time in a year, I met up with some of my CSM students. It was wonderful. Although their company has changed, they haven’t: still passionate about their work, and the ingredients they develop for us all. I could hardly sleep after it: my mind whirring about the mysteries and miracles of margarine.