Fittingly for a fruit whose original Nahuatl name, āhuacatl, also means testicle, there has been some right old balls written recently about avocados and, specifically, How to Eat’s subject this month, avocado toast.
This brunch favourite of upwardly mobile, trendy young urbanites – for argument’s sake, let’s call them hipsters – has become a prism of anger through which many (older) people see a world they no longer understand. Columnists and wealthy entrepreneurs have railed against supposedly skint millennials frivolously spending £9 on brunch, drawing harrumphing support from the kind of people who get unreasonably upset about the abbreviation “avo toast” and how we don’t have national service any more.
This is The Apprentice view of personal finance. The belief that “anyone under 35 unwilling to work 18-hour days seven days a week doesn’t deserve to buy a house” is more psychological disorder than reasoned argument. Millennials are no more self-indulgent than any post-boomer generation and as the prospect of saving for big things, such as houses, becomes ever more distant, why bother? Bring on the bottomless brunch!
With the avocado seen as the embodiment of everything that is wrong with Insta-food culture, wellness, gentrification and metropolitan liberals generally, it is easy to forget why it is so popular. Global cultivation has almost doubled in the past decade because uses of this fruit (less so the raw fruit itself) taste very, very nice. For all the marketing muscle that has been flexed to popularise the avocado, the UK’s love of avo toast seems natural, unforced and indicative of a wider, meat-free shift in dining habits. One that – despite the avocado’s problematic sociopolitical baggage – signposts a new future for food far more than recent crazes such as BBQ or posh burgers.
That is not to downplay the avocado’s genuine issues. In Mexico, soaring prices and poor harvests have left people substituting calabacitas squash for a fruit they have been eating for 10,000 years, in one of those consequences of unregulated global capitalism that makes you despair, and that is even before you examine the role of Mexican cartels in harvesting what some dub “blood avocados”.
Consumers must demand Fairtrade or ethically sourced avocados, perhaps from other parts of the world. Self-regulate, too. Eat less avo toast if necessary. Do your bit to alleviate that voracious global demand.
Like many of the finer things in life, avocado toast is best eaten as a treat, an infrequent break from the norm. And when we do eat it, it had better be done right. That is where How to Eat (HTE), the series examining how best to enjoy Britain’s favourite foods, can help.
Notes on construction
Fun fact: avocado toast existed before 1993. It was common in California in the 1960s. The New Yorker printed a recipe in 1937. Logically, it was probably “invented” thousands of years prior when some unknown Central American hero applied heat to bread and avocado to toast. But contemporary avo toast, Sydney-style avo toast, was popularised by Australian chef-restaurateur Bill Granger, whose early 90s version – toast, mashed avocado, lime, salt, chilli flakes – has since taken over the world.
It is barely a recipe, more assembly than cooking. That is why so much anal attention is paid to the nature and treatment of its key components. Historians have yet to isolate precisely when mashed avocado became “smashed” avocado, but that smashing is crucial. Why? Well, as the comedian Geoff Norton, frontman for BBC Two’s How the Middle-Class Ruined Britain, put it recently: “No ‘fruit’ should have such an oily, meaty texture.”
That is why we smash, Geoff. Sliced and elegantly fanned across toast, avocado is a bland and bizarrely creamy freak of nature: vegetal but not vegetable, cold, curiously slimy and offering little interest because the essential seasoning that brings it to life – lemon and salt, at the very least – won’t properly adhere. Seasoning can only be thoroughly distributed through smashed avocado, and that smashing must be done by hand using a fork, to avoid an eerily fluffy, wet, machine-processed texture.
You want it smooth but dense, like Michelin-starred mashed potatoes, or Dominic Raab. In Australia, the seasonal interval in which Hass avocados (creamier, great smashed) are replaced by the Shepard variety (firmer, better for slicing), provokes national mourning. HTE can sympathise with that.
The bread that this smashed avo sits on must be inch-thick toasted sourdough. Not white sliced bread, which looks thin, mean and lost under a mound of avocado; not ciabatta (its woolly crumb lacks the crisp textural contrast that sourdough offers); nor English muffins, as favoured by the musician Van Dyke Parks. Sourdough is one of the few breads robust enough to provide a platform for a great moist dollop of avo; plus, like the added citric acid, its lactic edge is fundamental to the interplay of this dish where sharp, hot flavours and crunchy textures dance like excited fireflies around the rich, soft avocado core.
Plating and design
With its vivid colours, it is little wonder avo toast has become such an online hit. A mess of bright, sunny ingredients invariably looks good on Instagram. Rarely, however, have aesthetics intersected so dramatically with how we enjoy a dish. As discussed above, sliced avocado (often arranged in ornate, eerie geometric patterns) is far less pleasurable than smashed. Attempts by chefs to tame this dish kill it.
Using avocado like butter (“A fat that you spread on toast,” as one Australian chef told the New Yorker) is chefs’ first mistake. Particularly when that avocado is spread thinly, primly and neatly to the edges of the sourdough, this dish begins to morph. It becomes as much about the toast as the avo, which is wrong. Smashed, well-seasoned avocado should be the star here, distributed in large random clumps, its thickness speaking of the fruitful harvests of distant sun-drenched climates.
You do not want buttoned-up order here, you want colourful chaos: thick slices of toast at angles atop one another, hillocks of avo, sprinkled and adorned with extras (see below) until it looks as if your plate is generously overflowing with ingredients.
Apparently, some chefs use coloured crockery – grey or black plates, say – to turn up the colour contrast with the avo. While it makes sense to avoid a direct clash (eg blue or maroon plates), a stark white background works fine.
Sharp, salty and/or crunchy are the aims here, to titivate and offset the creamy avo. There are caveats, however. Citric or spritzy fermented sharpness is preferable to the bruising vinegary twang of, for instance, pickled gherkins. Also, do you need meat? Adding bacon or chorizo to avo toast is like Billy Corgan joining New Order, a guest MC dropping a verse on a Kendrick Lamar track or LCD Soundsystem reforming to make American Dream. It is an inflection, it adds another layer of interest to a familiar experience, but it is far from essential. In fact, if overused, all that meaty, umami bass in the mix can actively detract from an already perfect creation.
Eggs: Those eggs must be poached or fried, not scrambled, as favoured by fashion’s Alexa Chung. Scrambling introduces a poorly distinguished rubbery or pillowy dimension to the plate, whereas the tense white of a poached egg or the crispy edges of a fried egg offer a point of difference and also waves of golden yolk to help lubricate your plate.
Other good additions: Crumbled feta (on top, in large pieces, not blitzed to a powder and mixed through); nutty, spicy dukkah; smoked chilli flakes, but not too many (the heat should be restrained); some sort of almost dry, jammy harissa salsa; toasted hazelnuts; halloumi; crispy onions; lightly pickled pink onions; fermented pickled veg; a little labneh or garlic creme fraiche to loosen the plate; a dusting of sumac; a few judicious drops of hot sauce.
Bad additions: Sliced cucumber, tomatoes or radishes – a blank, watery interruption of this rich, indulgent dish; grated carrot; pickled gherkins or similarly robustly vinegary vegetables; Marmite; untoasted sesame seeds (a lazy, texturally unsatisfying shortcut); soft ricotta (what is this adding!?); smoked salmon, one greasy, slippery component too far; “Mexican beans” (HTE can see where you’re going there … but no); crab or prawns, delicate flavours best enjoyed in a less cluttered setting; rocket, unnecessary padding with an unsuitably strong peppery flavour.
Too busy for an early breakfast and (if it’s a good one) too filling for a weekday lunch, avo toast is, arguably, the definitive brunch dish: a free-floating 10am through 2pm weekend gift to yourself. Best eaten when mildly hungover or at a loose end, when you can sit and digest it at your leisure.
Great avo toast requires a practised hand, a lot of high-quality components and, perhaps most difficult of all given their ridiculously short window of optimum edibility, ripe avocados. Therefore, and particularly if you want to minimise food waste, it is best eaten in a cafe or restaurant, rather than at home. You can come unstuck, of course. You may be delivered a car crash of an avo toast for $22 or find yourself in the Australian cafe that, for A$18 (£10), serves toast and half an avocado to diners (as a “homage to the avocado and the farms”), and expects them to do the mashing and spreading themselves. That is not brunch, that is a cookery lesson. A DIY project. But seek and ye shall find your perfect avo toast. It is not as if we are lacking in venues serving it.
What else? Flat white.
So, avocado toast: how do you eat yours?