household. I have eaten more pieces
in the company of my husband than I'd care to count. The sound of a knife being scraped across its golden crust, and the crunch as the blade cuts it in half, often coincide with the first social exchange of the day. Recently at breakfast my husband announced, out of the blue, "That Dualit's a load of rubbish." Taken aback by this attack, I summoned calm and enquired why he felt like this. "They're fine if you're making four bits," he said, "but if you only make one it cooks one side properly and not the other."
The Dualit, I might add, has never once let us down in the 10 years it's been part of our marriage. But this was enough to sow the seeds of doubt in my mind. So when a press release popped through the letterbox advertising the Philips Sunrise XL, the latest thing in mod-con toasters, I felt obliged to put it to the test.
The Dualit, as we know, is not so much a practical purchase as a statement in retro Fifties design. The familiar tick of the clockwork timer as the toast cooks is a joyous sound compared with the mechanical spring of more modern toasters. And if its heavy, boxy form takes up half the kitchen, it can be forgiven - it is at least beautiful, unlike the would-be replacement which turned up. The Philips Sunrise XL is a humpbacked, mock-Alessi number with coloured plastic knobs. To add to its visual shortcomings, it's almost as large as a Dualit, but it fits only two slices side by side, compared with the four in a row that our particular model of the Dualit can cope with.
So the new toaster is sitting on the work surface looking shiny and ugly when my husband arrives home from work. "What on earth's that?" he said, aghast. "You didn't actually go out and buy it, did you?" I pointed out that this was beside the point, and what really mattered was whether or not it made good toast.
To this end, the next morning the toasters were put through their paces, and I'm relieved to say the new addition proved positively flaky. A stack of misfits piled up, burnt on the outside and underdone in the centre, or else blackened around the top crust and petering out to white bread on the base. The old faithful performed beautifully, producing evenly golden slices with alluring stripes - and they were crisp in the middle.
What the new toaster did offer was a variety of extra functions. For instance, a button that allows you to toast one side only. After scratching my head very hard wondering why on earth anyone would want to eat one- sided toast, the truth dawned that this was for toasted bagels. There was another button for toasting baguettes, and a bun rack that fitted on top for warming croissants and the like. It also came with a lid to stop dust getting in, and I think that was about it. Sorry, I almost forgot to mention the defrost button for frozen sliced bread.
Frankly, though, of these additional features the only one I can imagine making use of is the bun warmer, which did a surprisingly good job. That aside, if this really is the best that a manufacturer of kitchen appliances can come up with, it's easy enough to understand the lasting success of the Dualit, and that has just one function in life, to make toast.
I have to tread carefully here because toast and how you like it is a highly subjective matter. There are those who like it burnt, and others who prefer it flashed in and out of the slot so that it barely colours. I like mine with some degree of crunch in the crust, travelling inwards to something softer, and I prefer toast made with bread that is one day old so it doesn't collapse in the centre.
The concept of toast is tastefully explored at Pharmacy in Notting Hill Gate, where Jonathan Kennedy and Liam Carson have chosen to indulge our "British obsession" with a menu which includes croutons, soldiers, crostini and toasted bagels. These are all toasts in their own right and quite laudable. But breakfast toast is something in its own right and it is wrong to assume that the more interesting the bread, the better the toast will be. If you have ever tried toasting day-old ciabatta, you will know that you might as well eat a piece of garden fence.
As a rule of thumb, if when you slice bread it sends crumbs flying like sparks, then more than likely it's going to make horribly tough toast. This rules out ciabatta, pain de campagne or anything else that advertises itself as being rustic. These breads are all fine for hearty bruschettas and the like, but not for spreading with marmalade first thing. Nor am I convinced by the idea of toasted baguettes, these are only good for one day and surely best eaten as intended. The best bread for a slice of traditional British toast, nicely golden, lightly crisp and firmly puffed out in the centre, is a good old-fashioned bloomer.
There is an epilogue to this. Following this controlled experiment, the conversation at breakfast the next day turned once again to toast when I asked my husband what we would have done if the new toaster had made much better toast than the Dualit. "Kept the Dualit," he said. No reply