TRIED & TESTED / Worst thing since ..: In our test of ready-made sandwiches, dry ham, cloying mayonnaise and limp lettuce were an insult to the bread they came on - and that wasn't great

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The Independent Culture
WHEN the members of our panel prepared to munch their way through rounds of ready-made ham sandwiches, they expected to find that the mission of the past few years to improve British mass catering would have had some effect on quality. They were to be disappointed. With one exception, the ham turned out to be cheap, processed stuff and pretty tasteless. The other ingredients, including soggy bread and limp lettuce, were frequently little better. In the view of Piero Passet, a member of our panel, the perfect ham sandwich doesn't necessarily have to have fancy garnishes, but good basic ingredients. To judge by our results, the good quality gospel, despite innumerable repetitions, has yet to filter through to supermarkets and other big retailers. Read on, to find how the panel rated individual brands.

THE PANEL

Drew Smith, author of Foodwatch, to be published by HarperCollins in October; Piero Passet, owner of John Charlick Foods sandwich bar in London; Brenda Ratcliffe, food editor; Andrew Purvis, sandwich addict and journalist.

THE TEST

The panel gave the sandwiches marks for the quality of the ham, the bread, and other ingredients; for how well the ingredients complemented each other, and for the sandwiches' appearance. The scores were converted into a star rating. None of the testers knew which brands of sandwiches they were trying.

BRITISH RAIL ON-BOARD SERVICES DEEP-FILLED HAM AND EGG SALAD: pounds 1.89 (price, unlike other sandwiches, obliged to include VAT)

The British Rail sandwich lives up to its reputation of old - the panel rated it as one of the worst with rubbery egg, limp, wilting salad ingredients and gristly, tasteless ham. 'I haven't had ham like this since I worked for Grand Metropolitan hotels in 1969 - and that was in the staff canteen,' said Piero Passet. Although the panel had no inkling where the sandwich came from, Andrew Purvis came close to the mark when he said it was a good buy only 'if you are starving or miles from any other food outlet'.

MARKS & SPENCER LEAN DANISH HAM & SALAD: pounds 1.19

When the panel learnt this was from Marks & Spencer, they were surprised - they had expected the chain's sandwiches to have stood out from the general run. The ham was one of the most insipid: 'I don't know why they need to go to Denmark to get it; enough of this stuff is made in this country,' said Piero Passet. Any flavour that the ham did have was overwhelmed by the other ingredients, particularly the mustard dressing. 'Slimy, rather unpleasant sandwich, the mustard put in to pretend that the other ingredients taste of something, which they don't. A wet effect,' said Drew Smith.

*MARKS & SPENCER SMOKED HAM WITH MUSTARD MAYONNAISE: 99p

The main criticism of this sandwich was that the mustard mayonnaise was cloying. Andrew Purvis liked it, though, despite the glut of mayonnaise. 'Simplicity is the strong point of this sandwich. Tender, flaky ham and fresh and nutty bread.' Brenda Ratcliffe disagreed: 'A lot of fat made the ham rather greasy.' The soft-grain white bread was fairly popular, although Piero Passet didn't like it: 'Bread is too soft. The sandwich is very soggy.'

*WAITROSE HAM WITH MUSTARD MAYONNAISE: pounds 1.05

So similar to the previous sandwich that the panel suspected they came off the same production line. They made similar comments and criticisms: 'Same tendency of mayonnaise to melt into a slurry. Ham very thinly cut, possibly to enhance impression of tenderness,' said Andrew Purvis.

*** PRET A MANGER HAM ON MEDITERRANEAN BREAD: pounds 2.10

As the price suggests, this sandwich was in a different class to the rest, but the panel thought they'd be happy to pay the extra pounds 1 for the extra taste. The ham and the nutty bread were both of a much higher quality, and the sandwich had a colourful salad. 'Impressive, chunky sandwich, assembled rather than pre-packed,' said Brenda Ratcliffe. 'Imaginative - clever use of walnuts in the bread to give texture; very good ham; radicchio also gives more bite. Good sandwich - well thought out by people who care what they put in. Easy winner,' said Drew Smith. The panel found the mayonnaise a bit overpowering. Comparing this sandwich with the others may seem unfair but we included it in the test because it is the Pret a Manger chain's standard ham sandwich and shows what can be done. The shops are expanding beyond London: could the competition spur on M&S and other retailers to imitate their quality?

*BOOTS HONEY ROAST HAM AND EMMENTHAL: pounds 1.29

Another mediocre sandwich, although not one of the worst. Drew Smith thought the combination of ham and cheese interesting, but the others weren't keen at all. 'Dry, tasteless ham and bread,' said Andrew Purvis. 'Plain bad. Very poor ingredients. The outer leaves of an iceberg lettuce should not be used,' said Piero Passet.

SAINSBURY'S HAM AND TOMATO: 99p

This sandwich has the dubious distinction of being rated even worse than the British Rail one. The panel thought that, with its sliced white bread, it looked very unappetising and that the ingredients were very poor. It apparently had no butter or margarine, presumably because it is marketed as a low-calorie sandwich. 'My ham was gristly. A sad sandwich,' said Brenda Ratcliffe. Andrew Purvis commented: 'Revolting to look at. White bread a real turn-off. Vivid pink ham horribly reminiscent of live pig, with token tomato for colour. By far the worst.'

*SELECT HAM SALAD: pounds 1.39, available from Shell garage forecourt stores

Shell recently won a 'Sandwich of the Year' award for this - an accolade handed out by the sandwich industry itself - but it received no plaudits in our test. Our panel liked the granary bread, but otherwise the sandwich had little to recommend it. The ham was insipid and very wet. 'The sandwich is trading on the cheapest ingredients, under a brown bread health message,' said Drew Smith.

NEXT WEEK: TENNIS RACKETS

(Photograph omitted)

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