For many years the missus and I had completely abandoned the idea of butter toast. Of course we always had a toaster and bread and butter at home. But somehow we stopped enjoying the simplest way possible to combine those three things. We would toast the bread, apply butter and make a sandwich of some kind with eggs or ham or--on the weekends when we had the entire morning free--eggs and ham.
But then for some unexplainable reason--middle class culinary hubris perhaps--we simple stopped slathering butter on toast and then demolishing it in that state. I am sitting here and thinking why this happened.
Nope. No idea. I just don't know why. Maybe it was a flaky reason like over-dependance on cereal for breakfasts.
Ha ha. Sorry. I have a corn-y sense of humour.
And then one weekend three years ago someone invited us to Pune for a wedding jamboree at a place called the Corinthians.
Oh my god. The Corinthians. This is what their website has to say:
Who says that palaces and the royal life are a part of the past?
Surely not those whom we have had the pleasure of serving at The Corinthians, Pune.
Built to the lavish standards of a Morrocan fairy tale palace with elements of Egyptian influences, it offers you a grandiose setting for a variety of occasions.
Come tasteless people of India! We are eager to service your Plaster of Paris desires and 'loose bermuda commando swimming trunks' passions.
I made up that last line.
But to be fair to them while the resort does have all kinds of superfluous obelisks, sphinxes and Greco-Egyptian pillars all over the place, it was actually very well built. The rooms were nice and roomy. The swimming pool had water in it, and the grounds were quite huge. There were lawns and little benches everywhere and we spotted many young couples in a recent state of marriage staying there. As pharoah as I could make out, there was a lot of mummification happening.
The friend's wedding jamboree was to take place over two days. On the first night a whole group of us decadent party animals--Pastrami, me, the women in our lives and other assorted buddies--sat up all night playing cards, antakshari and other wild party games popular in the North. (In the south we prefer Mastermind South India, Pictionary-Famous Western Classical Music Composers Edition, and the delightful-to-the-point-of-criminal game 'Who said this in which book by Proust?')
Hunger, like France, usually strikes Pastrami suddenly, intensely and without warning. That night too it hit Pastrami just as he was taking a breath between the line 'Giri Giri Giri Giri Bijli Giri' and the line 'Oh Ispe Giri Uspe Giri Lo Girpadi'. He immediately called up room service and demanded a full run-down of all available delicacies. As it was well past midnight the only hot things available on the menu were buttered toast and masala tea.
Pastrami: "Do you have brown, whole-grain or multi-grain bread?"
Room Service fellow: "Ok. Thanks." Click.
Half an hour later someone brought us a pot of tea and one of those small wicker baskets lined with foil and stacked with 8 slices of thick toasted sliced white bread generously buttered. I mean serious generosity. If the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation decided to butter toast--and they should--this is how they would butter it. The chef had kept going with the fat till the toasted bread could absorb no more and the remaining fat just stayed on the surface. Yellow, soft and shiny. Before this I had only ever seen butter stay yellow on bread on Amul butter billboards.
This simply never happened in real life.
And the toast. Oh the toast. The toast was of the perfect temperature and consistency. It was not so hot that you could hardly ruminate--as you must--between the imminent delight of biting and the animal violence of chewing. It was not so cold that the butter was beginning to coagulate into grease. And the texture. Toasted stiff, but not so much that at each bite the corners of your mouth hurt from the crumbs. Yet the centre was tender, without getting soggy under the pressure of all that cholesterol.
There was no doubt in our minds that this was excellent bread, fresh Amul butter and sincere toasting.
The eight slices disappeared faster than you could say: "Hey! Where is that Adarsh scam file I kept here..."
Over the course of that night we ordered four more baskets of toast.
It revived, in the missus and me, a passion for the brilliance of buttered bread that has seldom subsided since.
My earliest memories of butter toast are the slightly counter-culture version my mom used to make in Abu Dhabi when I was a schoolboy. She used to place two slices of Modern Bakery or Arirang bread, buttered on all sides with salted Lurpak, between the plates of one of those electric sandwich makers. No filling except the generosity of her heart. What has always amazed me is the versatility of that end product.
Eat it fresh and the bread is hot and delicate and crunchy. I particularly liked the crusty end-bits where the heat and clamping sometimes fried the bread. To this day I cannot handle the fiends who throw away the crusts of toasted bread. Philistines.
I even loved mom's clamped butterwiches cold. Which is usually how I had it during the vacations when I woke up very late indeed. By then the bread would have become cold, and slightly soggy. But also the sweetness in the bread would shine through better at lower temprature. This late consumption also confuses the butter. What is this, the butter thinks to itself. It is warmer inside the mouth than outside? Confused, it slowly melts in your mouth, melding with the masticated bread into...
I have left the rest of that sentence intentionally blank.
Over the years since then bacon, ham, eggs, beans, waffles, muesli, puttu, kadala, prantha, enthusiastic mother-in-law, bedmi puri, appam and egg roast have stood between me and the simple pleasures of fatty bread. When you're staying in hotels, for instance, tanking up on toast somehow seems a waste of all the other scrambled, fried, poached and griddled delicacies. Especially if a breakfast buffet is involved.
Can anything not made by Apple compare to the experience of waking up in the morning and walking up to large 4-foot wide vat of scrambled synthetic eggs armed with a ladle, a large warm plate and no adult supervision? My first few hundred breakfast buffets on business trips were a haze of eggs and meat and the odd guilty yoghurt.
But now, with the passage of age and the slight dilution in sex appeal, I have corrected my youthful ways. I now appreciate the simple pleasures of a bowl of cereal, some milk and some slices of thick, rustic bread toasted sensitively.
I then pick each slice up by the corners. The finger tips immediately process the vital characteristics: crunch, give, heat. Butter must be applied generously, quickly and systematically. Amateurs start in the centre and then work towards the edges. Fools. The centre is usually most warm. So the by the time you are done with the edges the centre is wet and soggy. Fools.
Also never waste time repeatedly moving from slice to butter container. This is usually seen in the case of guilty, gym-going hipsters who start with too little butter hoping somehow that this will be sufficient. Fools. This is why they are still slightly fat and mostly unhappy. You can always remove excess butter from a slice of warm toast. But a slice of toast will never wait for your hesitant, cautious buttering. There is also the chance that you may be offered cold butter, or butter in tiny fiddly containers. Demand warm butter in case of the former, and open the container fully in case of the latter. Don't peel back the foil half-way and assume you can manoeuvre with your knife.
Scoop a generous helping of warm butter in one go, enough for the slice and then come. Then dab it strategically at one or two points towards one edge. Then work it across the whole slice in broad, confident strokes. Only in one direction please. Otherwise you will apply, remove, apply, remove, apply, remove like Pakistani life cricket ban. At the end take any excess butter and throw it away. Do not reuse. Especially don't think you can move quickly and butter another slice with this. That is the kind of reckless, wasteful adventurism that led to Pune Warriors.
Butter and eat one slice at a time. Make each bite count. Crunch, think, chew. Ruminate upon the simple things in life. More than anything else, let this remind you of that old adage: Good things happen to those who weight.
Enjoy your toast.