You don’t see Melba toast much in restaurants these days and if you do, people make catty remarks. “Oh how very retro, very Seventies. Is there any egg mayonnaise?” But just because fashions have changed as the decades have rolled on doesn’t mean it isn’t any good. Besides, I have a sneaky little liking for it.
When I want the crispest crunch to go with my pate I’ll reach for the old coffee tin labelled ‘Melba Toast.’ I like to dunk it in my soup the same way as you would a biscuit in tea. The art is holding it in long enough so it becomes infused with soup but still have a slight resistance on tongue and teeth. But not too long that it gloops into your bowl.
I can recall only two occasions I’ve seen Melba toast in restaurants in recent years. The first was at that haven of Retroland, the Dore Grill, and the second when star chef Gordon Ramsay transformed Sheffield’s Runaway Girl into Silversmiths and revamped the menu. There was something with Melba toast for starters (in fact, versions of toast appeared on the menu three times but I think nobody noticed but me).
Everybody knows the story of how Melba toast came to be. You don’t? Well in 1897 the famous Australian opera singer Dame Nellie Melba was staying at London’s Savoy Hotel. Feeling a little out of sorts, she ordered some dry toast. She sent it back, poor thing, saying it was too thick. The boss of the kitchen was the legendary Georges Auguste Escoffier who took the toast, cut it in half laterally, re-grilled the cut side and sent it up to her. He named it Melba toast in her honour. He had a track record in naming dishes after her, having created the peach Melba (peach with vanilla ice cream and raspberry sauce) four years before.
Some say the name was coined by his great friend Cesar Ritz, the hotel manager, who had a flair for publicity. It came not a moment too soon to be listed among the dishes created at the Savoy. The following year the two were sacked for fiddling the books and stores and went on to found the Paris Ritz and London Carlton.
I was disappointed to see that both the Dore Grill and Silversmiths bought their toast in when it is so easy to make. If ever the oven is on and there is spare bread around I slice it very thin and bake it, gently, at around 160C until it goes golden brown. The toast you see here is from a rather good baguette bought at Perfectionery on Sharrowvale Road. It keeps for ages in an airtight tin.
And if you are ever short of breadcrumbs to coat a fishcake or whatever you can crumble up a few slices. Waste not, want not, eh? Thanks Nellie (and Escoffier).
PS: I also like egg mayonnaise.