by Ben Kritikos, with photos by Anna Jacob
Toast: widely considered by the rest of the world to be Britain’s favourite food. I once worked in a Turkish-owned Tex-Mex restaurant in Surrey. I pointed out to the manager a few errors in the “traditional” Texas-style recipes: he scoffed. “These fucking English people won’t know the difference,” he said, shooing the fly of criticism. “They think toast is a meal.” Living here in Britain, this popular European myth has been roundly confirmed.
The British love of toast is at once embarrassing and highly understandable. It depends on the toast, of course. Kingsmill is quite literally for the birds as far as I’m concerned. But even undiscerning ducks will insist on Warburton’s.
There are times when white sliced bread is perfect — for cucumber sandwiches, say. My grandmother used to make ham sandwiches with mustard and kosher dill pickles on America’s most aptly named loaf: Wonder Bread. Wonder is not so much bread as bread product, much in the same way that McDonald’s isn’t so much food as mouth-porn cum aortacide. Its lasting popularity is truly wondrous.
In the US, toast is served almost like a garnish. Similarly to the desultory parsley you’ll find on your plate, there’s usually a couple of unwarm, dry pieces of toasted white bread. They’re there for the overall effect, really. You’re not necessarily supposed to eat them.
But give me a loaf of British or Irish artisan-baked sourdough and I can make myself a proper meal. Sliced and toasted, a good loaf of bread is indeed a reason to gruffle like a Hooray Henry.
My personal favourite local bread, available at Whole Foods on Parkway in Camden, is this sourdough beauty:
Whole Foods is Satan disguised as a hippy, admittedly; but they make some damn fine bread. At £1.69 per loaf, it’s our thrice-weekly indulgence. It’s not like I have to pay with the blood of Christian children. Much.
I won’t skimp on my toast-related things; I’d rather go without new underwear, letting unwanted ventilation develop around my mid-section. If it’s a call between good bread for toasting (and good things to put on said toast) or having bus fare to and from work — baby, you better believe I’m on the Shoe Leather Express. Besides, there’s no better way than walking to burn off that excess buttery goodness.
These are my top five things to put on toast. They leave me agreeing with Britain that toast is food as much as Boeuf Bourguignon or Sushi or paella is.
There are oh, so many types of jam in the world. Home-made jam is among the best of them. Have you ever been given a jar of jam by the person who picked the fruit, melted it down and made the stuff? It’s a truly touching experience, especially if it’s good jam.
While jam may conjure images of tiny white tubs on the side of your plate at the one-night-hotel breakfast table, or that bizarre mixture of sweet and greasy that in America is called “jelly”, I have a fondness for jam that knows no bounds.
Sure, fancy stuff is great. But so is the good old, bog-standard jam from Marks and Spencer. I also like marmalade, but we’ll stick with the general jam category for now.
Raspberry jam takes the biscuit for me. I love St. Dalfour’s raspberry jam, not least because it’s only as sweet as it needs to be. These bunch of French sweety lovers somehow manage to make their jam without adding sugar; it is sweetened only with juice from other fruits. The result is actually dangerous, as I’ll most likely develop diabetes because of it. Merci beaucoup, you bastards.
I also like Marks and Spencer’s apricot jam. It’s quite sweet, but with the right bread — Whole Foods‘ sourdough, for example — the graininess of the wheat really balances out the sweet. Of course, you must wash toast and jam down with piping hot cups of strong tea. I suggest Yorkshire Gold with really good organic milk. Mass-produced milk tends to taste like nothing until it tastes off.
Look, if you think Vegemite is better than Marmite, why not consider this: Vegemite is owned by Kraft. Kraft are owned primarily by Philip Morris (now called Altria Group, Inc.). Vegemite is the Marlboro of the toast world.
If you simply hate Marmite, fair enough. I hated it the first time I tried it too.
I now love Marmite. It goes well on so many things: you can put it on cucumber sandwiches (thank you Anna), coat your roasted potatoes in a butter-and-Marmite mixture, add it to gravy, etc. Marmite could make Wonder Bread taste good.
As a pair of Marmite lovers, Anna and I had the good fortune to be part of a focus group for the black stuff. It was all very swish: they served champagne, and a man in a tuxedo sat at a baby grand “tickling the ivories” as I believe the saying goes. There were also Marmite-infused cocktails, but I’m one of these modern ignoramuses who prefers champagne.
We sat down at a long table with about 20 other people and were blindfolded. Waiters came round and served us three different types of Marmite. We all voted which were our favourites. In the end, I suppose the folks at Marmite used our critiques and came up with their new extra special Extra Old Marmite, or MXO for those of you who are too busy to pronounce entire words.
Our jars of MXO are fancy black and sealed with wax (suggesting it is not to be opened, so I’m curious about the nature of its contents); but they also gave us a second jar which says “Taster” on it for general consumption. Here you can see a pic of toast with both types of Marmite on:
Notice how the MXO is darker regular Marmite; it’s also quite a bit firmer. It’s good — if you like Marmite in the first place, that is. They sell it in shops now, so don’t think that just because nobody cares enough about you to give you champers and a piano man before asking your opinion, that toast toppings are beyond your reach. Ha.
It’s unclear to me whether this is a British thing or an Anna Jacob thing. I suspect it may be British custom to have avocado on toast; but how traditional can it be if avocados originated in Central America? Also, Anna is the only person I know who would try to put avocado on everything and anything. She refuses to believe the exact definition of fruit: she says it’s not a fruit if you wouldn’t put it in a fruit salad.
The problem with avocados is clearly evinced in the fact that I have no photo of avocado on toast to show you. The bastard fruit wouldn’t ripen in time, and it was the ripest one I could find in all the shops in Camden.
Supposedly, if you place your unripe avocado in a paper bag with some bananas they ripen faster, because of a gas that banana skins emit — or some such rubbish. Let me tell you, I’ve got in my kitchen a bag with two recently browned bananas and one very unripe, unruly avocado. They’ve had almost a week to get acquainted.
Nevertheless, when finally the avocado decides its ready to come out of its frogskin dressing room and get naked on my toasted bread, I’m going to douse it with Worcestershire sauce, grind some black pepper on it, and then I’m going to put it in my top-front up-and-down noise hole. NOM.
I’m pretty sure that if there is a god, it’s made of cheese.
Hearkening back to Anna’s Top Five cheese board, you might have guessed that we would put Cornish Yarg on our toast. Cornish Yarg has that mix of creamy and dry that goes really well with buttered toast. It’s milder and softer than cheddar, completely lacking in any bite; but the raw dairiness of it makes me drool a bit, much like a cow with no manners.
Cheddar — especially strong, mature cheddar — is a good reason not to kill yourself. There’s always cheddar on toast! If you’re feeling really feisty, you should try cheddar on toast topped with Tracklements’ award-winning Chilli Jam. I left this out of the jam section on purpose because it’s actually more like a relish.
This Wiltshire-based group of bloody geniuses have invented the Reeves to cheese’s Mortimer. The Bush to cheese’s Cheney. It’s hot, but it’s a subtle heat that actually tastes of something — chillies, to be specific. Lots of people only know chillies as those things that make Indian food taste like nothing whilst simultaneously burning your face off … a thing to be feared. Tracklements have the balance just right.
Cheese on toast is definitely one of my favourite meals of all time. If something terrible happens, I immediately think, “It’s time to put th’ kettle on and make cheese on toast”. Unless the terrible thing is that I’m violently ill all down the front of myself. But it takes something like vomit to stop me wanting cheese on toast.
Back to mackerel. What a fish. If you go out fishing in the Irish or North Sea, or anywhere in the Atlantic near the British Isles, you’re bound to catch mackerel — even if you don’t want to. I feel okay about eating mackerel. It’s not like cod, which is on the verge of extinction, what’s left of it being battered beyond recognition and often found bungee jumping from chippers to people’s stomachs to the pavement in front of the chipper again.
But mackerel on toast, you say? Yes, I do. Give me Irish smoked mackerel on a thick slice of salty-buttery soda bread as dense as cake, slathered with Worcester sauce, and I will pay you upwards of five pounds. I recommend Nóirín’s soda bread, which unfortunately is only available in Ireland. The second best bread for this combo also hails from Ireland: Blazing Salads‘ rye sourdough. Smoked mackerel on one of these bready bastards, with a soft-boiled egg on the side… I’ll deal with the heart failure later.
If you live in the UK and can’t get your hands on Nóirín’s or Blazing Salads’ amazing bread, try any other soda or sourdough with a good crusty outside and a dense centre — but not too doughy. When the bread’s too moist, the whole thing becomes a bit cloying.
Once again, hot tea would be my first suggestion. If it’s a little late in the day for that, try shaving some red onion wafer-thin and adding it to the top; then wash the whole thing down with a cold beer. Oh, delightful winter food! It’s good to be alive.