Food and Drink: Not the greatest thing since sliced bread

I AM assured on all sides that the sandwich is making a comeback. At the same time, I had not really noted its disappearance. A certain fading, yes. After all, we have just lived through more than a decade of gastronomical puritanism, and in our search for the perfect body, shaped by pumping iron and jogging one's joints into early arthritis, bread and butter and what we stuffed inside did not really conform to our ideals.

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.

There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
Elton John and David Furnish exchange marriage vows
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
Billie Whitelaw was best known for her close collaboration with playwright Samuel Beckett, here performing in a Beckett Trilogy at The Riverside Studios, Hammersmith
people'Omen' star was best known for stage work with Samuel Beckett
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Wright has won The Apprentice 2014
tvThe Apprentice 2014 final
Arts and Entertainment
Darrell Banks’s ‘Open The Door To Your Heart’
Detective Tam Bui works for the Toronto Police force
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Recruitment Genius: Class 1 HGV Driver

    £23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful group of compan...

    Day In a Page

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'