Sundance Times - Continuing the Crook County News Since 1884

This Side of the Pond

Notes from and Uprooted Englishwoman


July 30, 2020

I am sad to report that I write this column while consuming the last of the soda bread my husband stuffed into the freezer during our time of self-isolation. Like thousands of men across the world, he discovered a new hobby in the form of bread products that don’t require yeast.

There’s probably a deep meaning somewhere in the fact that so many men of different backgrounds, ages, vocations and cultures came to this same decision about their baking experiments, but I haven’t teased it out. I am content to enjoy the fruits of his labor, and not just because it’s a delicious treat at lunchtime when re-crisped in the oven.

I’m also in seventh heaven because I’m British, and that means I believe deeply in the concept of toast. I accept as true that there are few things you cannot put on a slice of toasted bread and call it an entree.

I know it’s mostly an afterthought on this side of the ocean, or a way to eat avocado, but not for us. Toast is as much a part of British culture as hot dogs are of yours.

To us, toast is a meal unto itself, with or without a topping. Butter is your first and most obvious choice, of course – I’m not sure you can even call it “toast” without it – but it’s just the beginning.

It’s probably the most popular breakfast food in the nation, usually accompanied by jam, lemon curd or marmalade and, of course, a nice cup of tea. Looking for a heartier start to the day? Put a poached egg on top of your toast instead.

At lunch we’ll opt for our own version of the traditional “grilled cheese”, except we call it “cheese on toast”. Simply toast a piece of bread, cover it with shredded cheese and grill until it’s bubbling. I highly recommend a few drops of Worcestershire sauce on top. (Incidentally, this is how I’ve been eating my soda bread.)

Alternatively, there’s “beans on toast”, which is exactly as it sounds: baked beans (our version has a tomato sauce rather than barbecue) placed on a slice of toast. There is also “spaghetti on toast”, which is tinned spaghetti poured over a slice of buttered toast, and at this point you’ve probably cottoned on to the naming convention.

Eggs come back into play at dinner time in the form of “dippy egg and soldiers”. I know, you were just getting used to it and we went ahead and flung the naming convention right out the window.

A dippy egg is a soft boiled egg, perched in an appropriately sized cup with the top sliced off to reveal the runny yolk. Soldiers are toast slices cut into strips thin enough to dunk in the yellow goodness, so called apparently because a line of them resembles a military parade. Yes, you’re right, that’s weird.

There’s also Welsh rarebit, which involves mixing an ounce of flour into an ounce of melted butter and then slowly adding 3.5 fl oz of dark beer and stirring until thickened. Add 5 oz of sharp cheddar, an egg yolk, 1 tsp of English mustard, 4 tsps of Worcestershire sauce and a pinch of cayenne pepper, season and spread among four slices of toast. Grill until the top bubbles and your dinner is ready.

We’ll also put sardines on toast, scrambled eggs and ketchup or cream cheese. We’ll dip our toast in soup, or eat it with a full English fried breakfast. Toast, we believe, goes with pretty much everything.

How a person likes their toast is a deeply personal matter. This starts with the bread: some prefer crispy sliced white, others enjoy the chewy texture of sourdough, while the deeper flavor of a whole wheat appeals to others.

How well done should a slice of toast be? Tastes range from so lightly browned that you can’t tell it’s not just bread until you take a bite to verging on irreparably burned. This makes it dangerous to offer to make toast for a person you don’t know well, as you will inevitably get this wrong.

Spread the butter while the toast is hot, or wait for it to cool? You wouldn’t think this was a matter of debate, but it’s just as treacherous as the toasting process. If you spread the butter immediately, it will melt into the toast; if you wait, you’ll get to experience the cool texture of the butter with every bite.

To the best of my recollection, I have never worked in an office building that did not feature a toaster in the kitchen. That plus an electric kettle is the staple of every family home, and we’ve come to expect the ability to make toast at work, too.

Amazon provided cheap bread and toasting facilities in its canteen when I worked there, knowing they’d never convince the staff to eat an alternative breakfast and fully aware of the dangers of trying to toast it for us. There was even a toaster in my school’s sixth form common room.

It’s not the only necessary piece of equipment. I recall a member of my American family discovering that such a concept as a “toast rack” exists in Britain. He found it both mysterious and amusing that the table of every hotel is set for breakfast with salt and pepper, napkins and a toast rack.

He was not familiar enough with this hallmark of British cuisine to know one should never place a slice directly on the plate. We veterans know that condensation will form underneath, and a sweaty slice of toast will lose its delicious crisp.

When the Brits get an idea in our collective heads, we seem to feel compelled to push its boundaries as far as they will go. On the other hand, toast sure takes the preparation time out of the cooking, so perhaps there’s something to be said for the simple things in life after all.


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