Toast is the most important and versatile item in the gastronomic universe. At breakfast time it suppresses the pangs of night starvation. At lunch time it adds interest to boring sandwiches and in the evening, in homoeopathic quantities, it can be imbibed in a celebratory manner.
"Gentlemen, The Queen!"
"God bless her, and all who sail in her!"
Let me tell you about toast...
When I was a child we had a toasting fork and, as a special treat, I was sometimes allowed to spear slices of bread and toast them on the glowing embers of the coal fire in the dining room. Getting the toast perfect was a precise and delicate skill. The toasting fork had to be angled correctly and the bread had to be just the right distance from the coals. Failure in either of these things could ruin the whole enterprise. I had no great problems with distance, but angles were tricky; the bread had a tendency to slide around on the prongs of the fork, and on more than one occasion a minute adjustment of the slant would cause the bread to fall off the fork and land in the fire, thus defeating the whole purpose of the exercise. But when everything came properly together, the toast was just perfect. It was golden and crisp with an elusive, smoky piquancy that tantalised the taste buds. Knowing what I know now about the combustion products of coal, I am not entirely sure that eating all that toasting fork toast was a good idea. But gosh, it was yummy!
We also had a toaster, but my mother was highly dubious about it. If left unsupervised, it had a tendency to produce lumps of charcoal rather than legitimate toast. When this happened, my mother became somewhat agitated at the waste of bread.
"Eat your toast!"
"But mum, it's all black and burned."
"Charcoal is a well known antidote for arsenic poisoning. Eat your toast!"
"But I haven't been poisoned with arsenic."
"How do you know that? Napoleon died a slow, lingering death from all the arsenic in the paste that stuck the wallpaper to his bedroom walls. These things take time. Eat your toast!"
That sounded interesting. How do you get poisoned by your wallpaper?
"How did that happen, mum? Did he commit suicide by eating the wallpaper? Do you have to eat a whole wall full, or will small strips from a dark corner do just as well? Perhaps he put it in his pipe and smoked it? If I promise not to eat or smoke the wallpaper in my bedroom, can I be excused toast?"
"Prevention is better than cure. Eat your toast!"
I ate my toast. And, being full, I didn't eat my wallpaper, thereby proving that toast really does protect you from the wallpaper's deadly dangers. Always listen to your mother. Mothers are invariably correct.
Mostly my mother made toast in the grill. The grill was at eye level so she could observe it at all times and could easily remove the tray from the heat when the toast was perfect. My mum's toast was always perfect...
An ideal piece of toast is golden brown from edge to edge, with not a trace of black or burned bread to be seen. Once the bread has toasted, it must be allowed to cool. Only barbarians butter their toast while it is hot. Toast is not blotting paper; it is not supposed to be absorbent.
Toast cooling mechanisms are also very important for that perfect final result. Ideally the toast should be placed in a toast rack (we had a lovely silver Georgian toast rack -- I wonder what happened to it?). A toast rack holds the individual slices of toast a carefully calculated distance apart so that the steam from the hot toast can escape into the atmosphere without condensing on the surface of the toast. If you don't have a toast rack, it is also quite acceptable to prop the slices of toast together at an acute angle as if you are building a house of cards with them. Under no circumstances should the toast be left lying flat while it cools. The steam will condense beneath the toast and it will soak up the water like a sponge, becoming pliable rather than friable, soggy and quite disgusting.
Once the toast has cooled, a thin layer of butter should be applied. The butter should stretch from edge to edge but no further; no toast surface at all should be exposed and there should be no buttery overhangs. If any butter at all soaks into the toast, then you buttered it too soon and it is now ruined. Throw it away and start toasting again.
The buttered toast should then be covered with marmalade; preferably Seville orange marmalade, though other orange marmalades are acceptable if the real stuff is temporarily unavailable. Some people prefer grapefruit based marmalades. I am not one of these people, but I can understand the craving.
On the other hand, heathens, barbarians, philistines and people who are utterly beyond the pale like to cover their toast with peanut butter, vegemite, marmite or jam. Such people are barely human and they are absolutely never invited to the best parties.
Eating a slice of toast excites all the senses. There is the simple aesthetic perfection of the layered symmetry of the presentation; the mingled scents of bread, butter and oranges and then the crisp texture of the toast itself as your teeth take that first succulent bite and a delectable crunch sound echoes through your aural cavities. The crispness is complemented by the smooth silky softness of the butter which itself is overlayed with the bitter tang of Seville oranges. All these things combine together into a truly perfect gastronomic delight. Trust me -- when the Gods on Mount Olympus become bored with ambrosia, they eat toast.
When I was a student, we didn't have a toaster. All we had was a solid hot plate. After some experimenting, we discovered that toast can indeed be made on a hot plate, though it requires close observation and more than a little skill. Simply turn the hot plate up as high as it will go, slap a slice of bread on, turn the bread over just before it bursts into flames, repeat the same formula for the second side, and then remove the toast and eat it. We charcoaled a lot of bread before we finally learned how to precisely identify the flash point, but, on the bright side, none of us ever died of arsenic poisoning and the wallpaper remained unchewed.
This simple toast recipe proved both tasty and fraught with peril. For mysterious chemical reasons that we never quite managed to solve, toast prepared in this manner proved to be a highly effective laxative. We had only two toilets between ten of us. Consequently an evening of toast tended to involve much buttock clenching. But we were addicted to toast and we were quite unable to stop preparing and eating it...
You cannot get toast in hotels. It often appears on the breakfast menu, but nevertheless, it remains elusive and largely unavailable.
Some hotels take the easy way out and require you to order your toast and then wait for it to arrive. Experience suggests that you can read at least two newspapers from cover to cover before the toast appears. And when it does finally arrive, you are invariably presented with two slices of lukewarm bread rather than with toast. Obviously the bread has been slapped in a toaster or put in a grill for about thirty seconds in order to take the chill off, and then sent out to your table. So why does it take so long to prepare? I have never been able to solve this conundrum.
The two slices of lukewarm bread will cost you $14. More "toast" will cost you incrementally more; $7 a slice every time. Do they bake hotel bread with gold dust instead of flour?
Other hotels provide toasting mechanisms in the breakfast room and you are expected to make your own toast. Since the hotel staff have no hand in the preparation of the toast, this represents an obvious cost saving to the hotel. Consequently such self-prepared toast is charged at $10 a slice.
The most common device for making your own hotel toast is a machine with a conveyor belt that sucks your bread deep into its interior, passes the bread across a red hot grill and then spits it out again. The slower the conveyor speed, the more time the bread spends beneath the grill and the darker the toast. At least that's the theory. It tends not to work very well in practice.
The first time you send your bread through the machine, it invariably re-appears barely toasted at all. Therefore you send it through a second time whereupon clouds of smoke arise from the machine. The over-toasted bread re-appears as charcoal. Your day is ruined, though you do remain safe from arsenical wallpaper.
I have never, ever found one of these machines that could produce proper toast -- they seem capable only of extremes. One such machine in one hotel was so badly adjusted that it required multiple passes of the bread before it became even faintly toast like. A breakfast patron lost patience with it and sent his bread through once too often. The smoke alarms went off, the sprinkler system kicked in and the breakfast room had to be evacuated. The wallpaper in the hotel was alarmingly chewed that day as starving guests roamed the corridors like zombies.
No, I was not that breakfaster, and yes it really did happen.
Now you know the secret lore of toast. However the rules of toast do not necessarily apply to other toastable products -- and they particularly do not apply to crumpets. Unlike toast, a crumpet should never be left to cool. Crumpets are designed to be buttered and eaten when piping hot. The molten butter is supposed to be soaked up by the crumpet and then slowly disgorged as you chew.
The perfect crumpet is warm, fragrant, moist and slightly greasy. That's why Englishmen refer to their girlfriends as "...a bit of crumpet."