In defence of mince on toast, the quintessential British classic

I have eaten mince on toast. Often. More specifically, I have eaten the mince on toast that caused the entire nation, or the entire nation that likes pretending to be annoyed about things on Twitter and Facebook, to revel in a collective “WTF?” this week.

It’s the mince on toast dish cooked by Shaun Searley at the Quality Chop House in east London – a critics’ darling of a restaurant since its relaunch a few years ago. It’s always been called the Quality Chop House apart from when it was run by the owners immediately previous to the current one, when it was a not-terribly good meatball place for a few months. It has always looked the same: the quintessential British classic restaurant, though “comfort” may be stretching it, given the narrow booth benches. You know it even if you don’t. About 80% of period dramas based in the early to mid 20th century have included scenes shot there.

Given the general love given to the Quality Chop House by people who are paid to eat food (and people who aspire to be paid to eat food) in London, I was surprised that the Observer’s Jay Rayner, not a man normally to shirk the meatier, and earthier, ends of the menu, tweet that he had never eaten mince on toast, what has been before, and certainly is now, Quality Chop House’s signature dish, as much of a classic for diners there as roast bone marrow is to diners at St John, down the road.

As I said, I’ve eaten it a lot. When Little Atoms was based first at the old Guardian building, just across the street, I frequented Quality Chop House more than was healthy for my wallet or my waistline. I would eat the mince on toast. What’s more, I would enjoy forcing it on friends.

“You MUST try the mince,” I would command, always hoping for a bit of bite back, a little recoil.

It rarely elicited such a response. Friends generally ate the damned thing without question and enjoyed it.

And it is an immensely enjoyable dish: deep, thick, with a tinge of sweetness, the heaviness of the dripping-fried toast offset by a mound of strong peppery watercress.

But, you say, that’s not what our issue was when we guffawed together on social media, temporarily allowing our bemusement over meat on bread to distract us from the general horror raining upon us every moment of every day. Our objection, you say, was to the fact that Eater, the US site (which launched in London this week) had described mince on toast as a “quintessentially British comfort classic”.

“I’ve never eaten such a thing in my life” a million and one people tweeted.

But I’m not sure that’s the point.

Is mince on toast “quintessentially British”? Yes. I think so. I think it might certainly be the most English thing I have ever eaten. While I’m certain I could never cook mince on toast anywhere as well as Searley does, it has a certain cook-not-chef quality to it that epitomises the British food renaissance that idolises Fergus Henderson, founder at the aforementioned St John. There is no extravagant saucing, no unusual treatments. It’s mince. On toast. Bit of salad. There you go.

The “comfort” claim? Well, I’m queasy about the idea of “comfort food” as a whole, and its dreaded echo “nursery food”, phrases that always smack of a nostalgia for the sound of sobbing in a public school dormitory. But is it a warm, pleasing, satisfying, non-confrontational meal? Yes. It’s never going to turn up as a challenge on Man v Food. It’s quite nice and you could eat it forever without your head coming off.

Is it a “classic”? In enough senses of the phrase, beyond “old” or “established” it is. It is an exemplar of a food culture. It is recognised by critics as worthy of regard (though perhaps not as Quality Chop House’s confit potatoes, which, one suspects, restaurant critic Marina O’Loughlin will have placed in her coffin to sustain her in the underworld, the potatoes having been responsible for her passage there in the first place).  And crucially, after this week, mince on toast is very, very well known.


mince on toast
brief respite from the horror

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    Every time Britain picks a fight with Europe it's the salad that suffers.

    We are in the midst of a national salad crisis. Bootleg lettuce is now a thing. A dozen lettuce were recently put on sale on Gumtree for £50. Brexit and the subsequent (and predictable) collapse in Sterling has led to a national salad shortage. A hard Brexit could make things even worse, as the majority of our salad comes from the continent. 

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    Catherine ended up relying on Dutch importers to bring new salads to England, which in turn populised the revolutionary new concept of eating green leaves to the stodgy English. Yet, this trend was short lived as Catherine – abandoned by Henry – died in 1536, at the age of 51. That same year, Henry decided to take back control from the continental superpower by ordering the dissolution of the monasteries.


  2. Irish politicians don’t just exist for Britain’s benefit

    One’s eye is turned, tearfully, to a “report” on “alternative media” blog Skwawkbox.

    “Breaking” announces the headline, vigorously. “Ireland will block Brexit deal if #MayDUP deal goes ahead”.

    First, that “Breaking”. The Skwawkbox story, written on 22 June, refers to comments made by Ireland’s new minister for foreign affairs, Simon Coveney, on 19 June. You can watch the film of Coveney’s comments on the RTE website.

    To suggest a three-day old report of a long-held position is somehow “Breaking” is a little cheeky, but well, welcome to the new independent media.

    More irritating is what comes after that Breaking: the implication that Coveney has said the Irish government will block any Brexit deal if Theresa May enters into a confidence and supply arrangement with the Democratic Unionist Party.

    Let’s be very clear: Coveney has said no such thing. He has said the Good Friday Agreement must be protected in Brexit, the consistent position of the Irish government since the issue of Brexit was first raised.

    Skwawkbox’s writer makes an enormous leap, asserting that any arrangement between the DUP and the Conservatives will breach the GFA.

    This is far from clear: but dear old Skwawkbox asserts that Coveney’s comments are a “huge – and possibly mortal – blow for Tory hopes of delaying the collapse of their ‘weak and wobbly’ minority government”, with “by far the most likely result” that Theresa May will “drive to Buckingham Palace with her own and her government’s resignation and trigger a new General Election.”

    This is nonsense, involving several huge assumptions and leaps of faith.

    And that’s annoying enough, along with the also very annoying “BBC isn’t reporting this” sidecar that now accompanies all “independent media” posts.

    But there is an even more annoying element: The Skwawkbox writer gushes: “Thank you Ireland, thank you Mr Simon Coveney. You are very likely saving the peace process – and helping to bring down a toxic and incompetent Tory government that has been breaking all kinds of constitutional precedents in its desperate attempt to cling to power.”

    Here we find a bizarre assumption among British people that Irish politics exists to provide some kind of Deus ex machina that will result in their preferred political outcomes. This isn’t unique to Skwawkbox, or to this story. As the DUP deal was developing, several papers put out the story that Sinn Féin’s newly elected MPs were going to Westminster in order to take up their office and Westminster inductions. More people than is healthy – and, I’ll be clear – not the kind of people who normally share stories from the Sun or the Daily Express, posted the stories, with an apparent hope that it mean Sinn Féin were about to take their seats in Westminster and skewer the numbers towards the, er, progressive side.

    This was not only ignorant of the reasons behind Sinn Féin’s continued abstention from taking Westminster seats, it also implied that Sinn Féin would somehow step in to “stop the Tories”.

    For 32-county, republican, Sinn Féin, and Ireland’s ruling party Fine Gael too, there is an entity they have to deal with. The British Government. Now they will have private and even public views on who they would prefer to be the main party in the British government (and the view of Fine Gael and Sinn Féin will be very, very different), but in the end, both are dealing with the government of a foreign power.

    Because Britain is a foreign country.

    Simon Coveney