Nostalgia on toast

food : Fresh from an Edwardian banquet: an elegant, light lunch
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The traditional British savoury - or perhaps it should be called "elegant snack" - is now a rare sight on restaurant menus. The fact that it ever appeared there at all I put down to sheer greed: the savoury was once yet another course towards the final, burping and slobbering end of a gargantuan Edwardian banquet. There would, of course, have followed more groaning platters and bowls containing fruit, cake, pastry and the odd piece montee. The savoury, in those Rabelaisian times, was certainly not something you had instead of the pudding.

But it hung around long after the feasting was over, making brief appearances in gentlemen's clubs, hotel dining rooms and a smattering of traditional English restaurants, mostly in the capital, such as Wilton's, Overton's and Bentley's, where its appeal was mostly nostalgic rather than gastronomic. Today, the retired colonel may gently nudge his quiet wife in the ribs when he discovers that the restaurant they are dining in still offers a savoury or two: "My word, Beryl, you can get a Scotch woodcock here. What a damn fine thing."

I don't think we've ever really considered cheese as a course, the way it has always been served before the pudding in France. What is curious is that in some of the more adventurous restaurants in France they are now doing some curious things with Roquefort and Epoisses (a fabulous stinker of a cheese from Burgundy), offering such delectations as millefeuille au Roquefort and souffle aux Epoisses, alongside the regular offerings from a groaning chariot.

Much as I love a savoury, I don't want to eat one at the end of a meal. For me they are just right for a light lunch or Sunday supper, when something with a certain comforting quality is required. The Scotch woodcock is the most savoury of eggy treats, but heaven knows how it got its name. Perhaps a blind and mean Scot thought that scrambled eggs on toast with some anchovies might fool somebody into thinking they were eating that now rare, and sensationally delicious, game bird. Maybe the French, having shot all their woodcocks out of the sky years ago, could now fool a few local gastronomes with becasse ecossaise.

Savouries can be as simple or as complicated as you wish. As well as the woodcock there are angels and devils, both on horseback, rabbits - both Welsh and buck - and mundane mushrooms on toast (though the recipe below transcends any notion of the familiar toast topper), and then there are herring roes, kidneys and chicken livers, all devilled, all delicious, and also always served on a slice of toast.

Scotch woodcock, serves 4

Use the very best eggs and the very best anchovies you can find.

85g/3oz best butter

6 very fresh, free-range eggs

2 egg yolks

4 tbsp double cream

very little salt


1 rounded tbsp chives

4 thickish slices white bread, toasted and buttered

8 large anchovy fillets

Melt the butter in a wide non-stick pan or frying pan. Beat together the eggs and yolks with the double cream and seasoning. Cook very gently, using a wooden spoon, until wet and curdled - or however you like your scrambled eggs. Stir in the chives, spoon on top of the toast and crisscross with the anchovies.

Angels on horseback, serves 4

There is often controversy as to whether the angels should be chicken livers, but, as far as I am concerned, they have always been oysters.

20 large rock oysters

cayenne pepper

20 thin rashers rindless, streaky bacon (smoked if you like)

Ask your fishmonger to shuck the oysters - or do it yourself if you are able, but make sure that the juices are collected along with the meat. Discard the shells. Pick out the oysters one by one from the juices and rinse them briefly under a slow-running cold water tap, in case there are any clinging bits of shell. Place in a small saucepan and strain the juices over them using a fine sieve. Gently poach for a couple of minutes, until just stiffened, strain.

Allow to cool and put on a plate. Sprinkle each oyster with cayenne pepper and then wrap each one in a slice of bacon, making sure to keep the join underneath. Heat an overhead grill and cook until crisp and browned. Serve hot.

Devils on horseback, serves 4

Substitute stoned prunes for the oysters in the above recipe.

Welsh rabbit sandwich with ham, serves 6

This is a remarkable version of the classic French snack croque monsieur. But here the cheese filling is more akin to a Welsh rabbit topping. A thin slice of ham is slipped into the sandwich and it is then fried in olive oil. If this sounds familiar, then you have eaten the tosto at Harry's Bar in Venice. This is the recipe from The Harry's Bar Cookbook.

225g/8oz Gruyere or Emmenthal cheese, at room temperature, diced

1 large egg yolk

1 tbsp Worcester sauce

14 tsp dried mustard powder

large pinch cayenne pepper

12 thin slices white bread (sliced bread is fine), crusts removed

6 thin slices cooked ham

a little salt

olive oil

In a food processor, mix the first six ingredients together to a paste. If the mixture is too thick to spread, thin out with a little cream. Spread the mixture on six slices of bread and lay a piece of ham, trimmed to fit, on top of each. Cover with the remaining slices of bread and press well together.

Heat some olive oil in a large frying pan and fry two sandwiches at a time, turning over once so that both sides are golden brown and gorgeously crusted. Keep the sandwiches hot, on a rack in a warm oven, until they are all cooked. Cut in half and eat immediately, wrapped in a paper napkin.

Mushrooms on toast, serves 4

This is a luxuriously rich dish, but quite expensive to make. The mushrooms to use are dried morels (the expensive bit), which are now fairly easy to come by. You can substitute other dried mushrooms, but morels are best, as their crenellated surface catches and holds the sauce in the most agreeable way.

110g/4oz dried morels (pick out the smallest)

warm water

55g/2oz butter

4 small shallots, peeled and finely chopped

1 clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped

1 small glass Madeira or medium sherry

salt and pepper

275ml/10fl oz double cream

juice of half a small lemon

a little chopped fresh tarragon or chervil, and some chives

4 thickish slices bread, toasted and buttered

Soak the morels in 400ml/34 pint warm water for about half an hour. Drain, squeeze dry in your hands and strain the liquid through a fine sieve into a small pan. Reduce over a gentle heat until it amounts to no more than 3-4 tablespoons. While this is going on, fry the shallots in the butter until pale golden. Add the garlic and the morels and cook gently for five minutes, stirring frequently. Stir in the Madeira or sherry, bring to a simmer and stew for a good ten minutes, until the mixture is starting to dry out. Add the reduced soaking water and the cream. Bring to a simmer once more and continue cooking until creamy and unctuous. Season and stir in the lemon juice and herbs. Leave gently bubbling away while you make the toast. Pile the creamed morels on to the buttered toast and serve immediately. A chilled glass of fine sherry goes particularly well with this dish