Picture the scene: a typically Dutch dull, grey Sunday morning, sitting around the breakfast table with visitors from Britain. I chose this morning to soft boil some eggs, toast some bread and cut it up into strips as part of the morning feast. It was the first time that my two eldest sons had been given a soft boiled, rather than a hard-boiled, egg. They loved the fact that the egg had a runny, golden centre.
“Are you going to dip your soldier in it?” asked Grandad of my eldest son. My son’s reaction was confusion. My Dutch husband’s response was utter astonishment.
“Is he going to dip his what in it?” he asked incredulously.
Us three Brits around the table giggled a little. Grandad clarified.
“His soldiers. His toast. They’re called soldiers.”
“Why?” asked my husband.
“Something to do with Beefeaters I think. When you put the toast in the egg it looks like a Beefeater with the fuzzy hats,” said Nana.
“Right,” said my husband, looking no wiser now than at the beginning of the conversation.
“So you’re dunking the soldier by his legs into the egg?” he asked.
“I guess so,” came the British reply.
“So let me get this straight: water boarding. You’re teaching my son to water board soldiers,” stated my husband.
So having established, albeit in a rather savage way, that the Dutch do not soft boil their eggs and then dunk soldiers into them, I started to wonder why the British do. But before delving into why soldiers are a British thing here’s the low down on how to make perfect soldiers.
Firstly, toast your bread to a beautiful, pale brown colour and generously butter the slice. Then cut the toast up into – and this is the most important part – equal sized strips that are narrow enough to fit into the top of your boiled egg (somewhere between 1.5cm and 2.2cm wide seems to do the trick by all accounts). The general consensus is that a perfect egg for dippy soldiers needs to be boiled for six minutes. Not a second longer, not a second shorter. Line the soldiers up on your plate. Slice the top of your soft-boiled egg off with a knife. Sit back, admire your handy work and then get stuck in by dipping a soldier into your egg.
And then to the why. Trying to determine the origins of a soft-boiled egg and dippy soldiers is not as easy a task as I thought it would be. There are some that say the strips of bread are called soldiers simply because of their uniform size and shape and that they line up in a row on the plate – like soldiers. Seems logical.
Some link the toast soldiers to Humpty Dumpty and the King’s men. The children’s nursery rhyme certainly explains the connection between egg and soldiers. Imagine the scene: the children are singing Humpty Dumpty whilst mum is toasting the bread. She places a plate of toast on the table. The boiled eggs stand proudly in front of each child and little Billy tries to prop his slice of toast into his egg. Sobbing with disappointment he gives up. Mum cuts up the toast until it fits in the egg and little Billy, resuming his singing of Humpty Dumpty, dips away to his heart’s content. Eureka moment and soldiers are born. Mum calls the local newspaper, word spreads and before we know it there’s a national soldier dipping frenzy. Or something like that in any case……
For the non-dunkers amongst you, for the non-believers, maybe this will help: there’s a kitchen tool to help you make the perfect soldiers. Mike Minton, an engineer, designed a device in 2005 that had boiled egg and dippy soldier fanatics choking on their runny yolks in excitement. According to The Telegraph, whilst Mike Minton loves the concept of dippy soldiers he had this to say about them,
“I love egg soldiers but the one thing I hate is cutting up the toast, because it is fiddly, messy and time consuming,” he said.
So he solved his own problem. Invention to market. No more time consuming, fiddly, messy cutting of toast. Britons everywhere let out a big sigh of relief. Well, at least one school of ‘dippy soldier’ thought did. The other school of ‘dippy soldier’ thought doesn’t believe that soldiers should be toasted at all. Merely spread with butter or margarine. No messing about with toasters and that rather complicated, messy cutting of toast.
I can be swayed either way. Non-toasted soldiers are delicious dunked in a soft, runny egg but I also understand why others like it toasted – a sturdier soldier is always a little easier to bite, no dropping or curling over once the soldier is smothered in yolk.
And on a final note, if you’re still on the fence about making dippy soldiers next time you boil an egg I have one trick up my sleeve: a soldier shaped cutter. My family is the proud owner of one – it came with the soldier eggcup that Grandad and Nana once bought for my eldest son. No bog standard rectangles for us. In all honestly the cutter was hiding in the kitchen cupboard lost and forgotten on this particular morning, the morning when dippy soldiers came into my Dutch family’s life, but I assure you all that from now on it will be making regular appearances on our breakfast table.
All in the name of passing on British culture to the four Dutch males in my house.