PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 July, 2006, 12:00am

Some people like their toast in the morning, others prefer to toast while holding a glass. No one knows for sure how the tradition of toasting began, but surely toasts have been around from the moment our ancestors discovered that fermented juices can make you tipsy.

The Greeks are amongst the earliest folk to toast to the health of their friends - and for a most practical reason: to assure them the wine was not laced with poison. Poisoned wines - or any beverage - were a convenient weapon with which to dispose of one's enemies, competitors or dowdy spouse. It became customary for hosts to drink a glass of wine from the communal pitcher before serving guests to prove the wine was safe.

The Romans handled their interpersonal problems similarly and so readily adopted the Greek habit of toasting. The term 'toast' is derived from the Roman habit of dipping burned bread into the wine.

Anyone who has been treated for an upset tummy with charcoal will immediately understand the benefits of plopping a piece of charcoal into the pitcher. Charcoal reduces wine's acidity and effectively cleans up or filters it. Charcoal has long been in the winemaker's tool kit, though it is used only as a last resort. It can make an unsellable wine sellable and has the capacity to remove colour from wine, so is used as a clean-up remedy if red wine is accidentally spilled into the white wine tank. It is also useful for removing severe off-odours, which gives you an idea of wine quality during the Roman era.

In the 1700s it became the custom to proffer a toast to the health of those absent from the party, usually a celebrity or a beautiful woman. Any woman who became a frequent centrepiece of these toasts was lauded as the 'toast of the town'.

The wholeheartedness with which Europeans embraced the custom of toasting prompted leaders such as Charles V, Maximilian and Louis IV to ban it. However, by the 1800s, toasting had become an indispensable sign of etiquette, with a British duke declaring that every glass must be dedicated to someone and to do otherwise was 'sottish and rude' as though there were no one worthwhile to toast. To omit toasting a guest was considered an insult or, as the duke put it, 'a piece of direct contempt'.

Though the witty verbal toast has long been customary in British society, these days, most often one hears a simple word or two, such as 'cheers', 'to your health' or 'to good friends'.

When it comes to giving a toast, keep it simple and speak from the heart. Never offer a toast before the host has had the chance to do so. It might be wise to have a couple of stock toasts in one's repertoire and if offering one, be sure to have a clearly defined finish, such as 'raise your glass' or 'to Eric'. If you find your glass is empty while your host is waxing eloquent, it is correct to raise your empty wine glass - or any other glass - in response to the toast. meiburgde@aol.com