Give me a slice of paradise on a piece of buttered toast
Saturday 11 February 1995
Anything close to 0 Fahrenheit congeals my blood and makes me want to take the first plane south, and nostalgia, for me, is not twinkling starlit nights on the Great Plains with the pitter-patter of little wolves-feet in the back-, and a smell of bear-grease in the foreground; it is a snug bed, well-heated, an open fire at anything below 60 degrees. Had I been a redcoat I would have fought 10 battles round Poona rather than save Fort Mackenzie, and as for Hudson's Bay, let the Company have it.
As I was saying, I was reading the Indy or, rather, perusing the food pages. We are people of great common sense on the food pages (if you hadn't noticed). We advocate pleasure: which as the Governess is telling me right now, is "very selfish of you Master Keith".
Now of course I know very well that one man's pleasure is another man's pain, but there, upper right, was Simon Hopkinson telling me how he tucked himself up into a mental bed and made himself Scotch Woodcock or Creamed Mushrooms on Toast. Redolent stuff. And there, to the left of Mr Hopkinson, was Jim Ainsworth's account of a visit to a Twickenham bistro. As much as I agreed with Mr Hopkinson, I found myself uneasy with this bistro.
First of all, dash it, a bistro is a nasty French word for a wartime canteen and we don't have bistros in England: at least none chez PG Wodehouse, who is himself as comforting as any warm bed and the next best thing to real sunshine. An English bistro is a piece of new-fangledry, huffed I, casting furious darts at my family and muttering things like "My dear, can you think of any circumstance in which you would put a good, honest, disgustingly wonderful, totally incorrect black pudding into a crust?" Good grief no! (I took her silence to mean.)
Is black pudding en croute an up-market toad-in-the-hole? "My dear," I insisted, "What do you think of taking a sublime little bit of offal like a pig's trotter and surrounding it with Parma ham?" More silence. Gloom at the dinner table. Is or is that not gilding the lily or doctoring the trotter?
Sometimes, one simply shouldn't read so closely, because much of Mr Ainsworth's account of the Twickenham bistro in question was in fact gloriously in keeping with my mood of nostalgia: "rich stickiness", "pigs's head with Savoy cabbage", "oxtail"!
Experienced readers of this column will realise that I have now reached my point: the smells and tastes of the England that was, pre-kiwi, pre- tofu, pre-Perrier, pre-chic. Real nosh.
Now Mr Hopkinson's column was particularly redolent of that past, and summoned up in the splendid maxim proffered by Alan Bennett. Said Mr B, a droll man but also a creature of common sense: "You don't want avocado with prawns, you want something on toast!"
So true! What is surprising is how few peoples have understood the attractions of toast. Italians have their bruschetta, in which bread is coated with oil (and a variety of other things) and fried; the Portuguese will put their solid, chunky bread in all sorts of soups and stews; but in France, for instance, bread is kept rigidly apart from cooking. You may get a wonderful fried egg, or oeuf sur le plat, all over France (because the butter is so good) but nothing will persuade a caf owner that such a good egg deserves a piece of toast to sustain it. Their bread, except for the awful pain de mie, does not lend itself to toasting. With rare modesty, the French call toast le Toast, and recognise that pain grill, or grilled bread, is something very different.
Mr Hopkinson eloquently described creamed mushrooms on toast. Again, it would not occur to that nation of mycophiles, the Russians, to do anything so simple and delicious. I think England may safely take the credit in this regard, for Americans, who eat a lot of toast, have (a) a bread inadequate for toasting and (b) compound the error by eating their toast soggy and hot. That is because they do not have toast-racks. A toast-rack is what dries the toast (which should always be cut fairly thick - another reason why sliced bread fails the test) and make it capable of sustaining eggs and, to remind Mr Hopkinson, who is much younger than myself, not merely creamed smoked haddocks, but cod's sounds and gullets, chipped beef, sardines (oh for sardines on toast at tea- time in a nice smoke-filled cinema!), lambs' kidneys and much else.
There is a reason for this little corner of gastronomical pleasure, which Mr Hopkinson does not mention, and that is that toast provides the sustenance that goes with the frothy nature of egg or creamed dishes; toast also offers a texture to offset the softness and blandness; finally it offers an extra portion of that great blending agent, butter.
In short you get a lot for your money and in return for very little effort.
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