Not since the 4th Earl of Sandwich called for two pieces of bread and a slab of meat to eat at his card table has there been a better time to enjoy a sarnie. And if you’re the sort of person who tends to grab a sad ham and cheese roll on the run for your lunch, then you are really missing a trick. The sandwich has had quite a makeover.
Forget the questionable egg mayo and Coronation chicken triangles you’ll find festering away in your local shop, because all over the country increasingly outrageous offerings are being peddled: pork banh mi from Vietnam, lobster rolls, giant Reubens and meatball subs. And they’ve got bigger; half the time you’ll find a knife and fork is required to actually tackle them. Usually thought of as being a cheap, deskbound snack, this new generation of sandwiches is often served up in high-end joints (and often with prices to match). Nor are these creations destined solely for lunch; people are gorging on them for dinner, too.
So why has the sandwich gone all decadent (not to mention international)? Helen Graves, author of the new book 101 Sandwiches: A Collection of the Finest Sandwiches from Around the World, suggests that this sandwich renaissance is in part down to recent food trends.
“I think US television programmes such as Man v. Food really introduced the public to these giant creations. People were saying, ‘Oh, Americans really do sandwiches differently’. That sort of food then became very popular and fashionable. There was a lot of so-called ‘dude food’ about, restaurants such as MEATLiquor. The street-food trend made a big difference, too: you can hold on to sandwiches and they’re easy to eat while standing.”
The rise of street food certainly should be held accountable: the popular food trucks that do well go on to become proper restaurants. Then, before you know it, everyone is eating variations of sandwiches while dining out. There is also the sheer array of sandwiches from around the globe, introducing the hungry to all types of exotic fillings and breads.
Chefs are keen to experiment, too. Recent eye-popping creations include the ramen noodle burger and the mac-and-cheese burger (in this carb wonder, the noodles and macaroni are transformed into the bun). And, yes, burgers are counted as sandwiches.
“Really I would say that anything enclosed in bread is a sandwich,” says Graves. “But I am quite flexible. I would argue that a burrito is a sandwich, and I have included a recipe for one in the book. A hot dog is, too. A calzone, however, is not. But I don’t mind letting certain things in. For instance, I put in a recipe for an open sandwich because in Scandinavia they are a classic. We shouldn’t be too uptight about what qualifies as a sandwich.”
101 Sandwiches is the sort of book that would no doubt interest Stephanie Smith, the New York Post gossip reporter who was unveiled last month as being behind the blog 300 Sandwiches. The blog drew some criticism and ridicule after it was revealed that she started it because her boyfriend once told her he’d buy her an engagement ring if she made him 300 sandwiches (“a disgrace to the world of sandwiches,” according to Graves).
Surely, only someone like Graves could challenge Smith in her knowledge of the sandwich world. Graves is, after all, something of a sandwich obsessive and is also the woman behind the popular blog, The London Review of Sandwiches (she writes it when she’s not working on her PhD in psychological medicine). So what is it she loves so much about them?
“They’re just so satisfying,” she says. “Nothing beats biting into bread. There are endless variations, too. You can pretty much put anything in a sandwich. They have got a bit of a bad reputation in this country but you can see why; those horrible limp things in a protected-environment packet that could have been there for days. It’s great that people are opening up to [the sandwich’s] potential and even realising you can turn them into a proper meal.”
To demonstrate their versatility, Graves has invited me to her home to try some recipes. Beforehand, she asks me to pick three from the book for her to prepare, but the choice is intimidating. There is a pulled pork and coleslaw, a yakisoba pan, souvlaki pita bread, and something called a bosna (a sort of Austrian hot dog). For those so inclined there is even a chapter on sweet selections (Hundreds and Thousands sandwich, anyone?)
In the end, we decide to make something called a picnic loaf, a towering thing of multi-coloured layers that is popular in France and Italy. It is quite beautiful, not to mention delicious (if a little tricky to get your mouth around).
Then we try the Monte Cristo, a stalwart of trashy American diners. If you think three white slices of bread, layered with cheese, ham and chicken, dipped in egg and fried in butter sounds extreme, just wait until you discover that it is then served with a sprinkling of icing sugar and a blob of blackberry jam on top. It is a heart- attack inducing wonder that for some reason works brilliantly. I tuck in, in spite of myself.
Finally, we tackle a jerk chicken sandwich with pineapple salsa, which is my favourite. Graves points out that this is the only sandwich in the book that she invented; all the other ones actually exist somewhere in the world.
“No one puts jerk-chicken in a sandwich but I couldn’t help myself because it’s one of my favourite things,” she admits. It is a wonderfully potent mixture of spice and tanginess. A full meal in a bap.
Graves thinks we haven’t tackled the most outlandish creation in the book. That’ll be the Portuguese Francesinha: a terrifying-sounding concoction of steak, ham and chorizo with a beer and tomato sauce that’s baked in the oven.
But what is her all-time favourite? “Oh it depends what mood I’m in,” she says, laughing. “But when it comes down to it, it’s probably the ones I had in my childhood. My dad used to make a cheese and onion one which was fierce; you couldn’t talk to anyone for two days afterwards because it was so potent. But, ultimately, it’s probably something like ham and mustard on some good bread.”
It just goes to show that while wild experimentation is all well and good, sometimes it’s the simple pleasures that really are the best.
'101 Sandwiches: A Collection of the Finest Sandwich Recipes from Around the World’ by Helen Graves (Dog’n’Bone Books, £12.99) is available now