When food was not as abundant as it is nowadays, one did not dare to throw away something that might still be edible in some way. As long as mould did not take over yet, cheap old (white) bread was (and still is) safe to be put in a bowl of oil with eggs, and to be baked in a pan until it has a brownish colour. This is the basic procedure and result of making a French toast, but each European country has its varieties of this basic dish.
Terms referring to ingredients, baking process or knights
´French toast´ (EN), ´pain perdu´ (FR), ´bundáskenyér´ (HU) and ´αυγόφετες´ (avgofetes) (EL) all have a reference to ´bread´. The English term simply refers to ´French toast´ as if only the French eat it or as if they had invented it. So let us focus on the French equivalent of ´French toast´, which is ´pain perdu´. It indicates that the bread used for this dish was ´perdu´ (literally: lost) before it was turned into something edible. In other words, the French term refers to the prior state of the bread.
– The Greek term αυγόφετες (avgofetes) mentions (one of the possible) the ingredient(s): egg (αυγό – avgo) in combination with the slices of bread (φέτες – fetes), as if the term were describing the recipe itself.
– The Spanish and Portugese term ´torrija´ is derived from ´torrar´ which means to ´toast´ or ´cook´ something until it looks toasted. So, this term refers to the baking process.
– The Hungarian term ´bundáskenyér´ refers to the end result of the dish: bread (´kenyér´) in a ‘fur’ (´bundás´), which is made of egg and oil.
In the category ´not referring to bread´, there is the German term ´arme Ritter´, and its spelling varieties in Finnish and Swedish, meaning ´poor knight´, and the Dutch term ´wentelteefje´, whose literal translation would be improper at best.
Culinary comparisons and European inspiration
When looking at the visualised concepts of this (old, white) bread, it seems that all over Europe the baking process and the end result are alike. Minor differences are the amount of ingredients, using either oil or butter, milk or whipped cream. In most European countries, this dish is home-made and sweet, but it can sometimes also be ordered in restaurants and can be made salty or even spicy according to personal preference.
When the bread is soaked in alcohol (in addition to oil, egg, and milk), the Germans call it the ´drunken maid´ (´versoffene Jungfrau´). Port wine and liquor are some ideas for ingredients from the south of Europe. For a ‘sober maid’, you can use other liquids to soak the bread in (before or after baking); for example rosewater, honey, or orange juice.
Hungary might be one of the few countries where this dish is transformed into something salty: prepared with cheese, garlic, cream (´tejföl´) and the spicy sauce ´pirosarany´ (so that it might suddenly look more like the national specialty ´lángos´).
In Germany, one can get inspired to make a casserole with grated lemon, vanilla, raisins, cinnamon, and sugar, and later serve it with marmalade and juice.
Finland offers ´rich knights´ (´rikkaat ritarit´) in some lunch rooms. The difference between ´rich´ and regular ´poor´ knights is that the first is made of ´pullaviipale´ (sweet bun slices), and whipped cream is added later (presumably) in the shape of a crown. In addition, the bun is freshly baked and sweet – not old white bread that has to be saved from the garbage bin.
In summary, culinary historians could conclude that the ´European toast´ has evolved since the Medieval times from ´poor´ knights and ´drunken´ maids to ´rich´ knights, casseroles, and salty varieties.
Written by Eveline van Dijk
Study visitor at TermCoord
Sources and further reading:
John Ayto: The Diner’s Dictionary: Word Origins of Food and Drink – Oxford University Press, 2012
Otavan Iso Fokus: osa 4 – Kustannusosakeyhtiö Otava, 1976
Beckett, Fiona: “Student cookbook: French toast (aka eggy bread)” – The Guardian, 20 September 2010
Koerner, Brendan: “Is French toast really French?” – Slate.com, 16 September 2003