It is England in the 1700s, and bits of meat are being thrown into a pot, their sizzling drippings cooking a thick batter that’s poured on top, making it puff up and crisp spectacularly. The batter, plus a good serving of gravy, transforms the random off-cuts into a satiating, delicious meal.
The dish was first referred to quite literally, as “meat boiled in a crust,” or described as “batter-pudding with a hole in the middle containing meat.” Later on, sausage became the commonplace meat and a more figurative name was given; with that, toad-in-the-hole, along with spotted dick and bubble and squeak, became one of Britain’s most popular (and peculiarly named) dishes.
There are all kind of theories as to the origin of the name toad-in-the-hole (which differs from American toad-in-the-hole, made with a slice of bread and a fried egg), none to do with the cooking of amphibians. That, I am delighted to announce, belongs to the realm of hearsay.
Only that hearsay tends to stick, though, much like the idea that British food is inherently bland, stodgy and lacking in imagination. Alas, this perception is how so many outsiders came to get a kick out of thumping British food for a very long time and, to an extent, still do.
I can’t pretend that I didn’t share this attitude once upon a time. When I arrived on this island more than two decades ago, I was primed to be thoroughly unimpressed. It didn’t take long, though, for me to be proven gloriously wrong.
The setting was a Sunday roast, served in the first restaurant that offered me a permanent job. The stars, alongside the meat, were the aforementioned gravy, which was rich, smooth and gloriously silky, and Yorkshire pudding, a meatless version of the toad-in-the-hole, consisting only of the light, crusty batter. Placing me in charge of making Yorkies was a dangerous move. They were so good that a nice proportion ended up feeding me instead of loyal customers.
Subsequently, there was much more for me to discover: pies and crumbles, battered fish and custards, the list goes on and on. But today I go back to the three elements that turned me into a culinary Anglophile in the first place: well-cooked meat, crisp pancake and velvety gravy.
This blessed trinity is an excellent way to gather the masses, much like the Sunday roast itself. The only deviation from tradition I allow myself here is the substitution of sausages with pork meatballs, which I prefer for their looser texture. Nevertheless, the dish remains as unassuming as the original.
The simplicity of the ingredients and technique in toad-in-the-hole also says a lot about British culture in general. It is humble food, made with purpose and perfectly executed, with a tongue-in-cheek name to bring it all together.