Cheese on toast has been a savoury favourite of English gentlemen for centuries. Hannah Glasse's 1760 recipe for Welsh Rarebit states "...toast the bread on both sides, then toast the cheese on one side, lay it on the toast with a hot iron, brown the other side. You may rub it over with mustard". A variation is 'English Rarebit' : "...toast the bread on both sides, lay it before a fire and pour a glass of red wine over it. Cut some cheese very thin and lay it very thick over the bread and put it in a tin oven before the fire. When toasted brown it is served immediately".
Lancashire cheeses, from farmhouses in the Leigh district, were the most favoured for toasting. The fashion was to eat it immediately, often still sitting around the fire.
A special piece of equipment, virtually unknown outside Britain, was created to produce perfect cheese toasties in the late 1700s (long before the 'Breville sandwich toaster'). Made of silver or Old Sheffield Plate, these were high-end items that were meant to impress. Around 15cm wide and 25cm long, with a depth of 5cm, they were a lidded box that was hollow with a hinged lid and handle.
The handle could be unscrewed and boiling water poured into the toaster to help keep the toast warm whilst the cheese was being browned as it sat with the bread, on the flat top of the toaster. The lid was highly reflective and was kept open by a chain. It directed radiant heat from the fire onto the cheese and gave some protection to the person toasting the cheese. Sometimes the top was divided into six sections, each holding a small pan for a single portion of bread.
After a meal, the gentlemen would gather to drink and smoke when the ladies had withdrawn to chat. the men would be able to produce toasted snacks without the need for a servant. The toasted cheese would be shared in a similar way to how we share savoury dips today. Demand for the toasters declined during the 1820s, although the appeal of cheese on toast (welsh rarebit) remains with us to this day.
The highly reflective surface helps the toasting process
The handle unscrews so that boiling water can be poured into the body of the toaster to keep the bread warm