The name French toast surely means that this breakfast delight is another proud Gallic invention, right? Well, as Élodie Noël explains, the story isn’t as straightforward as it seems.
The origins of French toast, both the food and its name, are somewhat uncertain, but it is clear that similar recipes, involving bread being dipped in a mix of milk and eggs, have been whipped up all around the world for quite a while.
The earliest known reference to French toast is in the Apicius, a collection of recipes dating from the Roman Empire. According to historians, this tome is a survival from collections maintained by working cooks, and the attribution to Apicius, a real-life Roman noble of the 2nd century AD, is supposed to be no more than a literary convention.
In the Apicius, a recipe described as “aliter dulcia”, meaning "another sweet dish", prescribes to "slice fine white bread, remove the crust, and break it into rather large pieces. Soak in milk and beaten egg, fry in oil, cover with honey and serve."
From Europe to America
In Germany, the recipe for arme ritter, meaning “poor knights", is said to date back to the 14th century. Around the same time, Taillevent, a cook in the kitchens of the French court and author of Le Viandier, the most influential French cookery book from the Middle Ages, presented a recipe for tostées dorées, or “golden toasts”. While it indicates to use "hard bread" and to coat it in egg before frying it in a pan, Taillevent's recipe doesn't include milk.
The name French toast is said to have been used first in England in the 17th century before the recipe crossed the ocean to land in America with the early settlers.
A popular yet rather farfetched myth is that French toast actually originates from America. In 1724, a chef called Joseph French supposedly came up with the recipe, but failed to spell the name of the dish properly and forgetting the apostrophe, he named them "French toast", instead of "French’s toast".
The French roots
In France, French toast is actually called “pain perdu”, which means “lost bread”. Back in a time where food was sparse, and certainly nothing wasted, this dish was a way to use up all the bread from the days before that had gone stale. Dipping the leftover bread in a mixture of eggs and milk and frying it on a pan brought it back to life and made for a substantial and very filling dish to feed a family.
Around the world, many similar recipes also aim at putting some old bread to good use: bread and butter pudding in the UK, torrija in Spain, or rabanadas in Portugal.
While the traditional French recipe for pain perdu only includes bread, eggs, milk, a bit of sugar and butter to fry, some modern reinventions of the dish have turned it into an elaborate food. Popular toppings now include maple syrup, jam, honey, peanut butter, whipped cream, fruit, yogurt, ice cream, nuts or bacon. A variety of bread can be used, from plain white loaf to brioche, or challah bread.
From peasant food to elegant brunch dish
In Dublin, San Lorenzo’s on South Great George's Street has had people queuing to get the Coco Pops French Toast for their weekend brunch. This crunchy and extra indulgent number is topped with salt caramelised bananas, peanut butter, mascarpone whipped cream, and Belgian chocolate sauce.
In Bibi’s, on Emorville Avenue, Dublin 8, Geoff Lenehan puts a fancy spin on the classic, which he says is an extremely popular dish, “especially on the weekend mornings”. Geoff uses Tartine Bakery brioche, which adds a hint of sweetness and stays extremely soft through cooking. He then dips it into a half and half mix of free-range eggs and organic milk - no sugar. Once it has soaked up the goodness, the brioche is dropped on to a hot buttery pan, browned on both sides, before being topped with either Gubbeen streaky bacon and maple syrup or some seasonal fruits. “I think people love it because it is a true brunch dish, it crosses the boundary from breakfast to dessert! There is also a sense of nostalgia about French toast or as we knew it at home, eggy bread!”, Geoff tells us. The toppings in Bibi’s changes depending on the season, with Wexford strawberries in summer, apple and blackberry on for the autumn, and dark chocolate and honeycomb recipe during the winter.
Other cafes in Dublin have contributed to making this former peasant food a fancy brunch dish, using local and seasonal ingredients to introduce new flavours. In Meet Me In The Morning, on Pleasants Street, Dublin 8, the chef uses challah bread, which he tops with whipped Toonsbridge ricotta, spiced plum compote, Highbank orchard syrup, and granola crumb. In Two Pups Coffee, on Francis Street, the recipe currently features brioche, roast apple purée, blackberry labneh, roast apple, candied cinnamon hazelnuts, and fresh blackberries - a few steps away from the humble soaked and fried stale bread.
Author: Élodie Nöel
Élodie is a French journalist who relocated to Dublin about three years ago. She immediately fell in love with the island and its amazing food and has been writing about it on her blog Lemon Lipstick. You can follow Élodie's food adventures on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and Tumblr.