In my last blog piece about my Toast Water Jug, I quoted Mrs Beeton’s 1869 recipe for Toast-and-Water. Many readers responded: “so have you tried it?”. To be honest, I hadn’t. But I have tried it now. I decided to test it out. Under laboratory conditions, of course. This piece is my Toast Water Test Report. It is in three sections:
- Preparing Toast Water
- Serving Toast Water
- Tasting Toast Water
Preparing Toast Water
Here, to remind you, is what Mrs Beeton said:
“Cut a slice from a stale loaf (a piece of hard crust is better than anything else for the purpose) toast it of a nice brown on every side, but do not allow it to burn or blacken. Put it into a jug, pour the boiling water over it, cover it closely, and let it remain until cold. When strained it will be ready for use … If drunk in a tepid or lukewarm state, it is an exceedingly disagreeable beverage.”
That seemed straightforward enough, but immediately some difficulties presented themselves.
- The bread
- The toast
- The preparation vessel
- The strainer
I reasoned that you can’t reliably reproduce a Victorian recipe using supermarket bread which might be full of preservatives and lord-knows-what else. So, striving for authenticity, I visited my local artisan bakery. Breadshare (http://breadshare.co.uk/) is “a non-profit social enterprise whose mission is ‘Real Bread For Everyone’”, and whose products are “fully certified as organic”. Their bread is:
“made without the additives that are used to produced modern, industrial bread – no artificial enzymes, activated dough developer or preservatives. Just flour, water and salt as the basis for nutritional bread.
Further, our bread is made with a proportion of stone-ground, wholemeal flour which ensures the nutritional value of the grain remains in the bread. Roller-milled white flour is just starch at the end of the day and so we want to ensure our bread does not contribute your sugar intake.
Our bread is organic, to minimise the risk of pesticides and to ensure traceability of ingredients.
Finally, our bread is made using slow-fermentation techniques; to produce extra flavour and to increase the nutritional value of our products.”
Can’t get more authentic than that. I chose the plainest, whitest loaf in the shop, which was not particularly plain, nor particularly white, nor particularly cheap. I cut a thick slice off it.
The bread was very fresh. This presented a problem, because the recipe calls for stale bread. Being in a hurry to conduct the experiment and unwilling to wait several days until it became stale, I decided to induce staleness by artificial means by baking the slice in a warm oven for about 20 minutes before toasting. Then I toasted it golden-brown under a hot electric grill (sorry no gas flame or open fire available).
I was pretty satisfied that the result was a reasonable simulation of what might have been produced in Mrs Beeton’s kitchen. My toast was now ready for the next stage of the experiment: the vessel.
Mrs Beeton’s recipe specifies that boiling water should be poured upon the toast. Other recipes, incidentally, recommend pouring the water first and then putting the toast into it. Whichever, I was reluctant to use for this part of the experiment my beautiful Toast Water Jug, which, while in almost perfect condition, is around 150 years old, and might react badly to the shock of boiling water. So for the hot part I used a modern Pyrex jug instead. Sorry about that.
The next question to ponder was whether the bread should be mashed up in the water. It doesn’t say in any of the published recipes for Toast Water that this should be done, but somehow I felt that breaking up the bread might add extra toastness to the resulting beverage. Yet at the same time I wondered if mashing might produce something altogether too thick, slimy and porridgey to be acceptable. I did think for a moment that perhaps I should make two batches for comparison, one mashed, the other unmashed. But then, important as this additional step might have been to my aim of pushing back the boundaries of human knowledge about Toast Water, I couldn’t bestir myself to do it. I therefore conveniently concluded that it would be better to not to mash, shake or stir, but to leave the saturated bread as whole as possible in the water.
I poured the water on the bread, covered it closely as required in the recipe (using cling-film), left it to cool, and then refrigerated it overnight. Yes, I know cling-film and fridges are inauthentic, but I considered them to be acceptable as substitutes for equivalent Victorian conditions, bearing in mind that my Pyrex jug doesn’t have a close-fitting lid, and my kitchen, with its efficient central heating, is slightly warmer than your average nineteenth century scullery.
The next morning I carefully lifted the saturated toast from the Pyrex Jug using a straining spoon, and transferred it into the Toast Water Jug followed by the liquid. The toast’s structural integrity suffered slightly at this stage, and this might have made the resulting drink marginally more viscous and cloudy than might have been the case if the Toast Water had been originally prepared in the Toast Water Jug. I could have avoided this potentially detrimental step by discarding the saturated toast there and then, but I reasoned that in order for the experiment to be as realistic as possible, this was not the point at which the toast should be removed.
Think about it. It’s a fancy jug so it’s for service at the table or bedside and not in the kitchen. It has a fitted strainer, which implies that at the point of service to the Invalid, there is something to strain. So if you are a Victorian carer, you (or your servant) make the Toast Water in the Jug and you carry it, toast and all, on a tray, together with an appropriate drinking vessel (see below), to the chair or bedside of your Invalid. The only straining the beverage receives is through the strainer fitted to the Jug, which suggests that the liquid must be:
- Sufficiently thin to be pourable through the holes in the strainer, which are around 2 millimetres in diameter, and
- Sufficiently clear to be palatable to the Invalid as a cold beverage.
These are, of course, strong arguments in support of the decision not to mash the toast, which would almost certainly have negated both (a) and (b) above.
The Toast Water prepared and ready in the Jug, I put it back into the fridge while I pondered the next stage of the experiment. Into what should I pour it?
Serving Toast Water
The published authorities are silent on the subject of the dosage of Toast Water to be dispensed to the Invalid. For the next stage of the experiment it was necessary to consider how much of this excellent beverage a Victorian carer might administer to her (or his) Invalid, and in what sort of drinking vessel it should be served. In brief the questions are:
- A short or a long drink?
- Served in a glass or a cup?
The issue of recommended dosage can be approached by first determining parameters for the minimum and maximum dosage quantities:
- Minimum: what objective is to be achieved by serving Toast Water? The published recipes for Toast Water appear to suggest that its main use is as a cold beverage for invalids. Perhaps it is regarded as a source of nutrition when the ill person can’t stomach other foods. Or perhaps it is a way to hydrate the patient. One recipe (in the Hawaiian Cook Book) suggests that “it is good for nausea from diarrhoea”. We can however infer that Toast Water is a drink, not a medicine. As such, it follows that in normal circumstances you dispense it to the patient in sufficient quantity for it to be quaffed from a glass or a cup, and not sipped from a spoon. But this doesn’t tell us if it is a long drink or a short drink.
- Maximum: how much Toast Water is available to be dispensed? We have established that the very particular configuration of the Jug, with its lid and strainer, suggest strongly that the Toast Water is prepared by pouring boiling water directly on the toast in the Jug (or water first, then toast), and that the Toast Water is not first prepared elsewhere and then strained into the Jug. It follows that the amount of beverage available for dispensing to the Invalid is constrained by the internal volume of the jug.
The Jug’s capacity is some 800 millilitres of liquid, or 28 fluid ounces, up to a level of fullness which will allow for comfortable pouring. Remember however, that present in the water is a large slice of saturated toast, which, as we have argued above, we should not attempt to compress by mashing. As a result, the action of pouring Toast Water from the Jug produces not 800 ml or 28 fl oz of liquid but around half of this amount, with the remainder being retained inside the soggy toast. I guess if you keep the Jug inverted for some considerable length of time you could produce a little more liquid as gravity gradually drains the retained liquid from the toast, but this would be a tedious task unsuited to be performed at the bedside or chairside of an impatient and crotchety Invalid.
Thus we have established a reasonable range for minimum and maximum Toast Water delivery dosages between, say, 1 and 12 fl oz. For the rest of these arguments I intend to use only fluid ounces to describe quantities, because this is the Imperial measurement that would have been in use in the United Kingdom at the time when the Toast Water Jug was made.
Having discovered the range, we must now consider the appropriate vessel. When thinking about the glass-or-cup question, the appropriate beverages for comparison might be:
- alcoholic and/or tonic drinks or cordials such as are normally served in a glass or tumbler. If this option is selected, then the dosage comparator might be, at the lower end, a straight shot of spirits, such as whisky or gin (regulated at one sixth to one quarter of a gill, or 0.83 – 1.25 fl oz, depending upon where you are in the UK), or, at the upper end, a glass or tumbler of beer (10 – 12 fl oz).
- fortifying and calming drinks such as are normally served in a cup or mug. For this option, the dosage range might be at the lower end a demitasse coffee cup holding around 3 fl oz, or at the upper end a ceramic mug of 8 – 10 fl oz or more.
Having set out the arguments, I’m afraid I don’t have an answer. Frankly, I have no idea whether Toast Water was served to Invalids in a glass or ceramic vessel, or as a short or long drink. However, I decided in the interests of the experiment to try it out in a variety of more-or-less contemporaneous glasses and cups from my collection. The object of this part of the operation was to test subjectively which type of vessel would render the appearance of the fluid the most palatable and the least nausea-inducing. Readers can judge for themselves by comparing these images:
- Toast Water in a faceted-stem, gold-decorated cordial class from around 1775
- Toast Water in a small fortified-wine glass etched with the date 1839
- Toast Water in a mid-Victorian rummer (a large glass for beer or ale)
- Toast Water in a “Gaudy Welsh” type tea cup with saucer from around 1830
- Toast Water in a transfer-decorated pearlware ale mug from around 1820.
There is also a sixth possibility, but since I don’t possess an example, I was unable to pour Toast Water into it and take its picture. But in fact, it is the nearest I can conceive to a perfect vessel for the serving of Toast Water. It might have been made for this specific type of purpose. Indeed it was. It’s a trembleuse, a drinking cup with saucer especially designed for the use of Invalids and other folk with shaky hands.
The cup often has two handles so the drinker can keep it steady with both hands. The saucer has a deep recess or cradle for the cup to ensure that it is replaced firmly and centrally after drinking to avoid spillage. It is a masterpiece of design and was made in numerous patterns by many of the best British and European porcelain factories from the early part of the eighteenth century. I have borrowed a few images of trembleuse cups from the internet and post them here for you to see. Could there be a more suitable vessel for the purpose?
But even when served in a magnificent porcelain trembleuse, does Toast Water look appetising? Would it be welcomed as a bringer of refreshment and nutrition to a weak and/or elderly invalid?
My own opinion, for what it’s worth, is that with its slightly yellowish, slightly cloudy, slightly dull, slightly viscid appearance, nothing could make Toast Water appetising. And with its ingredients – just toast and water – nothing could make it nutritious. I wonder if it is saved by being wonderfully tasty? Time for the tasting.
Tasting Toast Water
To prepare for the tasting, I cheated again and strained the Toast Water through two thicknesses of finely-woven fabric. My reasoning was that this might make it a touch more palatable to my Tasters (or should I call them my Victims?). I decanted the strained liquid into a plastic bottle, sealed it, refrigerated it, and then took it with me to our local café Porto and Fi (http://www.portofi.com/) for the regular Friday-evening meal which Frances and I share with our friends Mary and Ron. There, I peremptorily appointed the four of us as the Tasting Panel. We borrowed clean glasses from Catherine, our regular waitress. I poured four modest doses and attempted to persuade or schmooze my Panel members to take a sip and give a judgment.
Here are the Panel’s opinions:
- MARY (diplomatic, polite): “Not unpleasant but not particularly alluring”
- RON (blunt, courteous): “It has no discernible taste other than toast”
- FRANCES (direct, fearless): “Not me! I’m not tasting that stuff!”
And my own opinion (scientific, objective): Yes, oddly, it does taste surprisingly strongly like the liquid essence of toast. It is very slightly oily and very slightly sour and rather dull. It might benefit from the addition of a sweetener (as some recipes suggest) or a dash of lemon juice (as others suggest). But it is apparent from this tasting test that toastness does not transmogrify well from a solid to a liquid state. Toast Water is really rather unpleasant.
It is time to draw my scientific experiment to a close with a final pronouncement of my findings.
We have seen that Toast Water was a popular nineteenth century drink to be administered to Invalids for purposes of nutrition and/or hydration. So popular, indeed, that pottery factories invented and marketed a special jug for its preparation and service.
We have examined the conditions for making and serving Toast Water and have conducted a rigorous tasting session.
Some people, especially those who like to read about history and those who like to collect antiques, think that everything from the past is good and everything from the present is not good. If that is what they think about Toast Water, I am now, after exhaustive research, in a position to assure them that they are incorrect. Toast Water has no nutritional or medicinal value and is an unpleasant beverage with nothing, absolutely nothing, to recommend it.
Toast in its traditional form is magnificent in its own way, and unbeatable as an unpretentious and filling vehicle for butter and for marmalade or jam or peanut butter. But as a cold beverage? Sorry, Random Treasure blog readers, but I have been wasting your time, and perhaps mine too.
My scientific conclusion: Toast Water is awful. Forget about it!
 Hawaiian Cook Book, compiled by the Woman’s Society of the Central Union Church, sixth edition, page 120, available at https://archive.org/details/hawaiiancookbook00hono/page/120