Toast is trendy. Yes, you read that right: toast. Obviously we’re not talking marge on Mighty White, but rather the artisanal slices served with hand-churned butter and homemade jams that have been popping up on “toast menus” around San Francisco and now New York. And if that all sounds too yuppy and insufferable for words, brace yourself: there’s more. Some of those slices are selling for $4 a pop. That’s about £2.43 a slice at the current exchange rate. Unsurprisingly, this pricey fad has attracted lots of column inches in the States, with some blaming California’s well-paid tech workers for fuelling the craze. So if $4 toast is storming San Francisco, could it be headed to Britain, too?
Before we get too sneery about the artisanal toast trend, it is worth taking five minutes to read this thoughtful piece by Pacific Standard’s John Gravois. Interested in the origins of the trend, he traces it back to Trouble, a coffee shop in one of San Francisco’s “foggiest, farthest-flung areas”. He meets the owner and discovers that for her, toast is both “comfort” and salvation – a symbol of her attempts to tackle mental illness. From Trouble, the toast trend spread to other SF cafes such as The Mill, which serves Josey Baker sourdough with sounds-like-a-spoof accompaniments including “small-batch almond butter” at around $3-4 a slice.
Food trends tend to fall into two camps. There are the headline-grabbers that major on novelty (here’s looking at you, Cronut), or there is the movement towards elevating simple foods to gourmet status – and charging a small fortune for them on the way. Into the latter category fall gussied-up macaroni cheese and, of course, posh burgers. And now toast, that most basic of foodstuffs, just heated up.
Britain seems a natural home for the artisan toast trend. After all, our love affair with hot bread goes back centuries. According to the Oxford Companion to Food: “Toast has a long history in Britain. ‘Tost’ was much used in the middle ages, being made in the ordinary way in an open fire.”
So perhaps it’s not a case of when the artisan toast trend will hit these shores, but whether it has actually been going on for years. Yotam Ottolenghi sparked a mini-craze for “self-toasting” at UK cafes in the noughties when he put toasters on the communal table at his London flagship. Food writer and chef Tom Norrington-Davies included a chapter on toast in his both his 2004 cookbook Just Like Mother Used to Make and 2005’s Cupboard Love. “A good piece of toast can form the basis for a pretty wholesome meal,” he says.
Food writer Tonia George went one further with her 2009 book Things on Toast, which contains some of the most drool-inducing photos of butter melting into bread you’ll ever see. “I’m a complete toast junkie,” she says. “I wasn’t trying to tap into a trend. I didn’t know other people liked toast as much as I did until the book started selling well and got reprinted.”
George now sells artisan toast at her two Ginger & White cafes in London. For £3.50 you get two slices of Flour Station sourdough toast, Somerset salted butter and jars of homemade peanut butter (“completely fresh, no preservatives”) and English jams. At Gail’s, a growing chain of bakeries, you pay £2.50 for two slices of toast (from a selection of 30 kinds of freshly baked loaves), Lescure butter and organic French jam. At E5 Bakehouse in Hackney, the sourdough toast – baked on site – is £1 a slice.
Artisan toast is a natural next step for a country where it is increasingly possible to find great sourdough everywhere from village bakeries to large supermarkets. The only question is: how much are you prepared to pay for it? “Good toast made from proper, slow-raised sourdough is worth paying for … within reason,” says Norrington Davies, who suggests SF’s tech whizzes could save a little cash by buying sourdough loaves, “investing in a good toaster” and making it at home themselves. But this rather misses the point: after all, who would be there to see that?
Is pricey toast a symbol of everything that’s wrong with a trend-obsessed food culture? Or are well-made basics worth paying for?