Upper crust

In praise of the bacon butty and other British sandwiches
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Not working in an office means that I am not as familiar with sandwich bars as other people. What I miss out on is having a special relationship with a proprietor who will greet me as I walk through the door with "tuna mayonnaise with tomato and cress on white", without having to ask.

We are creatures of habit when it comes to sandwiches, and most people have a repertoire of two or three that they rotate, Monday to Friday. On the rare occasions I have found myself working in an office, I have done just that.

Although bought-in sandwiches are not a part of my daily bread, they can be fascinating. Chill-cabinets stacked with polythene cartons make essential browsing - the fillings reflect the fierce competition to produce ever-more-interesting combinations to lure the die-hard away from their regular mix.

This is no exaggeration. Boots have a range of 60 sandwiches, and another 30 baps, bagels, plaits, rolls, flatbreads and focaccias. Even so, it's all rather reminiscent of a Monty Python sketch: "We've got chicken tikka, we've got chicken and bacon, and chicken and bacon tikka."

Recently, there was a furore when the Wall Street Journal attacked the British sandwich for being "substandard" - in reply to which this paper rose admirably on the subject. No one, however, stated the obvious: that there are good and bad sandwiches in the UK and good and bad sandwiches in the America.

Musing on this, I found it borne out by the introduction to a chapter in the newly published Dean and DeLuca Cookbook (Ebury Press, pounds 25). It says that "for decades half of all Americans have had some form of sandwich for lunch, but there has always been an air of serviceability and predictability, you didn't have to think too hard to select one."

And it goes on to sound every bit like bad British sandwiches: "Whadya want? Ham sandwich? Ham and cheese? Tuna salad?" You see they have them too, it's just that the Wall Street Journal swept the crumbs under the carpet so no one could see what they'd been eating.

The point - and here I suspect the Americans are one step ahead of us - is the bread. Dean and DeLuca speak in terms of revolution when "they found that selecting an interesting bread from the new bakeries springing up around the country boosted the excitement level immeasurably. Sandwiches went from serviceable to chic."

Indeed, we are talking about a sourdough ficelle encasing gooey slices of brie and smoked ham, or slices of walnut raisin-bread holding in a core of roquefort cheese, chicory and apples. That's only the beginning, it gets a lot fancier: vitello tonnato (veal with tuna sauce) on semolina bread with fresh basil and sun-dried tomatoes; and goat's cheese, avocado and smoked turkey sandwich on nut bread. True enough, they don't make 'em like that over here.

So where are we at? At the upper end of the market there are some very good sandwiches, albeit not remotely British in character. Both breads and fillings tend to be on the conservative side, which is not a criticism. Ciabatta is streaking ahead as roll of the moment and there are very nicely produced ficelles loaded up with Italianate fare, cheese and hams. Just occasionally, there's a deviation into nut bread with some cream cheese, dates and the like.

Of these, the best are made on the morning, or to order, and not preserved in plastic wrap, plastic containers or anything else that might allow a sell-by date of up to 48 hours. Long-life sandwiches really are a no-no. If they contain vegetables, it's a disaster: the vegetables either bleed their juices into the bread, or get squashed.

The rise of the modern upper-crust sandwich has also created a class division - though this has always existed to some extent. Traditionally your average toff is likely to settle down to a beef and horseradish, ham, turkey or tongue, not to mention a cucumber sandwich of a sunny afternoon. Dusty workmen would far rather have a sausage in a roll, a bacon butty or fried egg between two slices of sandwich loaf.

Obviously there are people whose only job it is to dream up new sandwiches, try them out and tinker. It seems a shame that they are always veering off towards the latest cult oriental dish and bunging it between two slices of bread, rather than trying to produce a quality British sandwich. On this score incidentally, the prize went to a triple pack I bought the other day that had one each of chicken tikka, tandoori chicken and Cantonese red chicken.

In particular, I think more work could and should be done on the lower echelon of tradition. Imagine travelling Inter-City and getting a fantastic sausage sandwich. It would have really hearty pork sausages, sticky and caramelised on the outside. And they would sit between two thick slabs of a white bloomer spread with fresh English butter and slathering of hot, yellow mustard. No skill called for in the assembly other than the careful buying of ingredients.

And what about bacon? It doesn't have to be limply pink and watery, sitting between Mother's Pride brushed with marg. We produce some superb bacon. Or eggs: I could happily tuck in to a couple of Martin Pitt's finest free- range. Fried in butter on both sides and runny in the centre, they would come tucked into a crusty white roll.

As for the miners' tradition of a plain watercress sandwich that spills out a haystack of green sprigs between two chunky slices of bread, one of my all-time favourites, you can't buy that kind of simplicity for love or money. Surely it's preferable to unripe brie, black grapes and frisee lettuce in half a cold pitta bread?

And I wonder what the Earl of Sandwich would have made of it all, having come up with the idea so that he didn't have to take time out from the gaming table. I am doubtful that he would have approved. After all, the idea was to win the game, not to be distracted

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