Food and Drink: Not the greatest thing since sliced bread
Saturday 22 May 1993
At best utilitarian, the sandwich does not properly belong in the gastronomical canon. At its nastiest - for instance, wrapped in clingfilm and soggy and served on an aeroplane, or curled at the edges and drying before your eyes in a glass case - it doesn't properly belong to any form of culture.
There are indeed whole cultures - those for whom not bread but rice is the staff of life - that will have nothing to do with the sandwich at all. Then there are intermediate cultures, such as the Mediterranean, that have sandwiches but not of the kind that we would recognise, the Italian panino being generally on a soft or hardish roll, the Spanish equivalent on an obdurately hard one, and the near and Middle East being devoted to the stuffed pitta bread.
This country used, of course, to be the capital of the sandwich. Certainly the sandwich, on brown bread and white, lightly buttered, figured large between the wars. As a child much kept at home, I remember the silver tea sets (how long has it been since anyone leaned towards you across a drawing room and asked, 'China or India?'), the cake trays and sandwich platters of those gorgeous teatimes.
Nor was the tea-sandwich the possession solely of the well-to-do. From Lyons corner-houses to the splendid tearooms of cinemas, the sandwich was always available: mysterious pastes tasting of sea and salt or beef and soil filled them, watercress spilled from their edges, tomatoes sliced thin to the point of invisibility oozed their pips and juices through the bread.
That bread, of course, was cut so thin - and was, needless to say, excised of its crust - that a perpetually hungry boy such as myself could polish off a dozen or more of these delicacies, cut into quarters, in no time at all: something one was not allowed to do until tea was nearly over and whatever was left became available.
We young people were, in fact, those for whom sandwiches seemed to have been devised. Elaborate picnics were packed into wicker hampers, and in the best families were served to us in rustic surroundings (say in the corner of one's own park) by a constant coming-and-going of servants marching across spacious lawns.
But no one considered sandwiches a meal. They were a teatime constant. As on ferries across the Channel or on board transatlantic liners, sandwiches were for the interstices of an eating life. They came sometimes (in the 'bracing' sea air) as elevenses, anchovy butter especially, but took pride of place at 4pm.
Later I came to know true sandwich cultures, such as the Scandinavian and the Germanic. By the time I was in my twenties, I had concluded that we were rank amateurs when it came to this art. But what Danes and Swedes served were not truly sandwiches - which in my book were delicately sliced glories enclosed between two pieces of bread - but what we in my family called canapes: bits of this and that exposed to the public gaze in vast arrays - smoked fish of all kinds, slices of pate, glazed vegetables, meats in aspic.
These were always connected in my mind to drinking. Often oily or thick with butter, they existed not so much to feed as to line the stomach against the ravages of alcohol. They were no less good for that, but far more necessary.
When later I lived intermittently in Germany, I came to note that the families with whom I stayed, like those in the Netherlands, seemed to survive not on sandwiches but on the makings of sandwiches laid out on a plain wooden board: bread, thick and dark, butter, cheeses of many kinds, sausages of all sorts. You had your own kitchen before you, with the one defect that none of it was hot, and in my mind, therefore, could not be considered a meal.
But by then I had discovered the joys of the hot sandwich: the croque-monsieur and the croque-madame (ham and cheese in the former, an egg added in the latter); the quick faux-pizza (tomato and mozzarella in what Americans call an 'English' muffin; the grilled cheese and so on. I swear by the croque-monsieur as one of the world's delicacies. I do mine in olive oil, Madame makes them with butter; I cook them fast, she cooks them slowly; she uses gruyere, I use cheddar. Either of them are marvels.
All this, you will realise, has nothing to do with those American monster sandwiches, so beloved of Dagwood Bumstead, and generally given foreign or fancy names - eg the submarine, or sub - to conceal their grossness: whole veal cutlet and meatballs in half a sodden loaf] No, a sandwich is held in three fingers at most; if it requires the whole hand, it's just an ambulatory meal. The new varieties I see splashed in gastronomical magazines are nouvelle cuisine applied to an old formula. In no time at all, I expect that not just I, but a whole culture, will revert to the sandwiches of my childhood. Gastronomy is ever cyclical.
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