Eating: Happiness is a cheesy, toasty thing
Sunday 28 February 1999
Yet you're hungry. Really hungry. Hungry for more than food. You need something warm, something real, something delicious, something familiar, and most importantly, something fast. You need a cheesy toasty thing. Just like stewy glumpy things and soupy sloshy things, cheesy toasty things have been handed down by a superior being to help us make sense of the world.
There's something about that gloopy, molten cheese, and the crisp, crunchy toast that can reach down and touch - not your soul, I hate food writers who talk up food as reaching your soul - but your socks.
Cheesy toasty things glide across borders and language barriers with the effortless ease of a shiny new Euro. Even the French manage to take time off from whipping up soaring souffles, slipping truffles under the skins of roast chickens and making rich creamy sauces to wander off to a local cafe, order a vin de pays and munch meaningfully on a croque- monsieur.
While describing it as merely a toasted sandwich topped with grilled cheese and occasionally coated with a thick bechamel sauce may be physically accurate, it misses the metaphysical point. To truly appreciate the grace and meaning of a croque-monsieur (the name means gentleman's crunch), one must use only the finest French pain de mie and Gruyere cheese. The only possible additive is a fried egg, which transforms it, ridiculously, into a croque-madame.
The most elegant croque-monsieur is to be found not in Paris but in Venice, in Harry's Bar. Here they do a glorious finger sandwich version, flavoured with Dijon mustard and cayenne pepper, pan-fried in olive oil and served in a snappy white paper nappy.
Not that the Italians aren't capable of inventing their very own cheesy toasty things. From Naples comes the glorious mozzarella in carozza (literally, mozzarella in a carriage), a Neapolitan sandwich of fresh buffalo mozzarella dipped into milk, coated with flour and egg and deep fried.
Closer to home, completing the triumvirate of great cheesy toasty things, is the mighty Welsh rarebit, which originally started life as Welsh rabbit. According to Jane Grigson, the Welsh considered a cheesy toasty thing as great a treat as a fine, fat rabbit.
It is, of course, but I think it more likely that the name came from the famous Welsh sense of humour, as in sitting down to yet another tea of cheese-on-toast and crying, "Oooh, Ma, what a fine, fat rabbit you've done for dinner tonight."
For a genuine Welsh rarebit, a slice of toasted bread is topped with a creamy mixture of Cheshire or double Gloucester cheese, egg yolk, mustard, and beer or milk. The whole lot is then placed under a grill and served as hot as you can stand.
My own particular favourite cheesy toasty thing, however, is the pan- fried cheese and ham sandwich, one of the true miracles of modern times.
To achieve this culinary paragon, simply spread a slice of bread with butter and place it butter side down in a medium-hot pan. Top it with a thin slice of Emmenthal or Tilsit cheese, a thin slice of ham and another slice of cheese, all cut to fit the bread per- fectly. Spread another slice of bread and place this on the top, butter- side up.
Cook gently until the bottom is golden and crisp, then turn the whole thing over and cook the other side. When it's done, the cheese will have melted and glued the lot together into a crunchy, oozing whole.
It's enough to make you face Monday with less of your normal ambivalence. After all, there are only six more sleeps until it's Sunday again.
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