British Classic #7: Toast, Our True National Dish

We have a long tradition on this ancient island of being content to admit that our best efforts foodwise are trumped by other offerings of the same kind from other parts of the world. It’s a debatable claim that Britain produces the greatest beef (I happen to agree, but the cattle farmers of Argentina, the monks of Kobe or many other producers would beg to differ), and the Sunday roast, as grand and heavenly as it can be, cannot assuredly sit atop a list of the finest meals humanity can provide. But, amidst all of this ambiguity and debate, there is one area where we Brits, unarguably, lead the planet. I am talking, dear friends, of the simple task of toasting a piece of bread and putting something on it. Our neighbours  near and far have their quick and inexpensive solutions to satisfy a growling hunger – a crackling hot samosa from India, a Vietnamese rice pancake roll, the elegance of a Parisien butter croissant or the thick, fluffly churros of Spain are all wonderful but I would choose a round of thick, crispy buttered toast every time. Of course, and I hear you say it already, other countries do toast. Yes they do. But somehow, either through a worry of calorie consumption or simply an oversight of this little snack’s importance, they just don’t get it right. I’ve eaten toast in America, but it is always served with something else, almost apologetically. And I’m always supposed to put grape bloody jelly on it, too. A friend went to Japan and had the misfortune to come across the flabby, pallid offering there. No, the crucial aspect of toast that seems lost to the rest of the planet is, quite simply…….

TOAST IS A VEHICLE TO TRANSFER AS MUCH MELTED BUTTER TO ONE’S MOUTH AS POSSIBLE . 

Sorry about the capitals, but there you have it, the central mantra of the cult of toast. And it is a cult, I promise you. Toast is beguiling because (and why do I always mention this factor in every episode?) it is cheap. It is also a dish that anyone with basic motor functions can cook. And it’s good at any point of the day or night. In times of extreme poverty or inactivity, one can live on toast quite happily – visit most university halls of residence and you will find my claim proved. However down on your luck, however misfortunate your situation, chances are you can still scrape together a round of buttered toast, or an approximation. 

So what makes it a world beater? Good bread, for one. There are wonderfully delicious breads in every nation, but a good white bloomer or similar is the only thing that works for toast. Ciabatta? One word – holes. You’d be cleaning up butter for ten minutes. Even a perfect San Franciscan sourdough loaf just doesn’t seem right. No, it needs to be a simple white loaf, sliced thickly (an inch should do it), carefully toasted to your personal degree of done-ness. It must be crisp, and if you are lucky enough to own the hulking iron sumo wrestler of an oven known as an AGA, then you have access to the finest toast possible. The AGA toast utensil, essentially two mesh panels that clamp your bread in place, with a protruding handle that allows you to turn the toast, rotisserie-style. The wonderful crispness and charred edges that this imparts belong only to the effects of this one cooker. But if we could afford an AGA, we wouldn’t be living on toast, would we? So, you’ve toasted your bread to perfection. Now for the butter. There is no great wisdom to impart here. Essentially, you need to get as much as possible onto your slice whilst it is hot, so that you will have the wonderful combination of warm, crisp crunchy dough, and the chin-dribbling richness of melted butter with each bite. Add a mug of tea to the situation, and you have a portrait of Britain to rival anything Constable could have committed to canvas. But we don’t stop there. Why not put something on the odd slice? A new cavalcade of options present themselves, and this is where toast becomes a deeply personal affair. There is the grown-up bitterness of breakfast marmalade (although my younger brothers liked to temper this by combining it with peanut butter), or one of the many jams on offer (But no grape jelly. At least call it jam, then we’ll talk.). Why not go fully native and enjoy the delights of Marmite, a glossy black yeast spread, so salty that it is only enjoyable as a thin scraping across your slice? (Marmite will be an episode on its own, FYI). Toast’s zen-like simplicity and eagerness to go with other things make it a best friend of many a reluctant cook, and a beloved comfort to those far from home. British children partially exist on toast, and I believe that this creates the comfort association in adults. My dearest toast related memory (never typed THAT before) has to be the Sunday night ritual of bath, followed by toast and hot chocolate in front of the TV, whilst you have your hair dried. Nothing teaches hand eye coordination and concentration quite like trying to bite a piece of toast whilst simultaneously watching Catchphrase and having your head shaken like a cocktail by towelled hands. This memory is a bittersweet one for a few reasons. I owe my love of American Football to this weekly occurrence, as Channel 4 were the station that brought the sport to the UK in the Eighties, and their round-up on Sunday night with former Falcon Mick Luckhurst captivated me and my Dad equally. It also meant that once a year I could stay up and watch the Superbowl with him, an outrageous treat that I looked forward to as soon as the Playoffs began. I’d obediently go to bed mid-afternoon in order to prepare myself for the greatest show on Earth later. Dad would wake me up, and I’d sit with him watching the unashamed carnival that is Superbowl Sunday. That is, until I fell asleep sometime in the second quarter. Every bloody year.

Now, I used the word bittersweet in relation to this weekly routine, and the bitter part came at the end, when the last of the toast had gone, the powdery final slurp of hot chocolate disappeared, and Mick said goodnight. Then, on the way to bed the creeping depression of the prospect of Monday morning at school would gather, forcing out the earlier exhuberance. In class the next day, your mind would occasionally wander back to that now otherwordly place of warm toast, sweet cocoa, a roaring coal fire and the LA Raiders cheating to a win as your hair danced in front of your eyes.

Thanks for visiting the site, and I hope you enjoy these little voyages as much as I do. Any feedback is greatly appreciated, and I am planning on doing two collaborative episodes sometime soon, namely Biscuits, and Sweets. Anyone who would like to contribute by writing a small ode to their favourite biscuit or sweet shop item, feel free to e-mail me at crucialtaunt@tiscali.co.uk, or by any number of other ways should you be a friend of mine (Twitter, Facebook, the majestic Simply Syndicated.com and its community) and I’ll make you part of an episode!

Thanks again, and I’ll try and make the next post arrive sooner, ‘kay? ‘Kay.

 

Croosh

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5 Comments on “British Classic #7: Toast, Our True National Dish”

  1. Marius Says:

    I am unworthy to comment on such a masterful oration as to the metaphysics of the, seemingly, lowly toast experience. In fact, never in my life would the words ‘toast’ and ‘experience’ join each other in my mind were it not for your brilliant prose, good sir. Indeed, as it is breakfast time for your humble reader, I believe I shall have to have some of said delicacy, though it is sure to be a pale shadow of the greatness above as I only have thin whole-wheat bread about. And pray allow me to pass along this wee song that seems appropriate: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GrF_K1w2haE

  2. Mary Says:

    Perfect breakfast 2 rounds of toast, both buttered, one with set honey, one with a good raspberry jam.

    This blog makes me hungry!!!!

  3. cohnee Says:

    Excellent recommendation Casey.

    But will there be a follow post on the wonderfulness that is cheese on toast? Not to mention Welsh rarebit, the national dish of our neighbours.

    May I also direct your attention to the Toast Marketing Board website: http://www.thursdaynext.com/toast.html

    • croosh Says:

      Thanks Tom, but I managed 1200 words, I think cheese on toast would be another 750, easy. But Rarebit will be featured at some point, I’m sure…

  4. weathereye Says:

    I just ate some toast.
    Bread is quickly becoming a “bad word” in dietary circles, and that’s too bad. My favourites are light Italian rye, French, sourdough and, sadly, the cheapest white you can buy. And I love them toasted. I ignore my lactose intolerance for real butter, although I have recently discovered olive-oil margarine, and it’s pretty good.
    Mrs. Weathereye likes ancient grains, dark, thick bread with seeds and such. I’ll use it for sandwiches, as it’s pretty tasty. But when it comes to toast (morning, noon or night, and five minutes ago) I like a good crusty white bread.
    I have to replace my toaster about once a year.


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