Though you wouldn’t think it, something as simple and unassuming as Melba toast was actually invented by perhaps the greatest chef of all time — and for one of the greatest prima donnas of all time, an Australian soprano by the name of Nellie Melba. Melba’s real name was Helen Mitchell, but she changed her name at the urging of her Parisian voice tutor to something a little more…showbiz. She took “Melba” as her stage name, which was a contraction of the name of her old home town, Melbourne.
Though she was from Australia (in fact she was the very first internationally-known female soprano from that continent), she rose to prominence singing at the Royal Opera in Covent Garden, London. During her engagements there she stayed, often for extended periods, at the Savoy hotel, where the chef was a mustachioed French fellow by the name of Auguste Escoffier.
In the year 1897, Ms. Melba took sick. So much so that she was forced to limit her diet severely, to toast and not a great deal else. For some time Escoffier had been preparing an extra-thin, double-toasted toast at the Savory which he called Toast Marie, named for the wife of the Savory’s owner, Cesar Ritz (yes, that Ritz). Yet since the toast became nearly synonymous with Nellie Melba that year, and given her super-star status, Ritz decided to change the name to Melba toast. Soon every woman who was anywoman was eating this fashionable extra crisp toast from London.
Dame Melba (which became her title when she was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1918) certainly didn’t mind the publicity. In fact by that time she was well accustomed to referring to herself in the third person. “Melba will take tea in her chambers this afternoon”, “Melba wishes to be left alone”, “no one takes a bow on the same stage with Melba!”. In fact, when asked, as she frequently was, where she got off ordering people around that way, her reply was simply: “I am Melba!” And that, as they say, was that.
To make Melba toast cut half-inch thick slices of your favorite bread:
Toast them under the broiler on both sides:
Cut off the crusts and/or trim the slices to whatever shape you wish (triangular is the classic):
Split the pieces horizontally:
Then toast them under the broiler on their untoasted side. A perfectly prepared piece of Melba toast curls slightly at the edges and is thoroughly dry and crispy. To heighten the crunchiness, start the process with day-old bread.
Serve with soup.