Earlier this week the reputation of the British sandwich had been subjected to a savage attack. The Wall Street Journal, esteemed organ of the American financial world, ran a front-page article which claimed that "barely edible sandwiches dominate the landscape" in Britain. It said Britain's "biggest contribution to gastronomy" had been reduced to factory-produced, film- wrapped bread containing fillings "so similar in taste that they were barely distinguishable to an American palate".
For the cream of the British sandwich establishment, this proved hard to stomach. It was here that the product was invented, when the 4th Earl of Sandwich absent-mindedly shoved a piece of beef between two slices of toast during a 24-hour gambling session. True, there was a time when the best that British catering could muster was two limp slices of white Mother's Pride smeared thickly with margarine, with a sliver of cadaver- coloured ham inside.
Back then, aficionados would gaze longingly across the Atlantic, where a sandwich meant a triple-decker pastrami on rye, with dill pickles on the side and "hold the mayonnaise". It meant 10 varieties of bread stuffed generously with a wide choice of succulent fillings. A square meal, in fact.
But times have changed, argue the likes of Jim Winchip, director of the British Sandwich Association. He believes that the advent of freshly made supermarket sandwiches, such as Marks & Spencer's hugely popular range, and of outlets such as Pret a Manger, with their exotic fillings, means that the British industry can hold its head high.
The food critic Egon Ronay is another defender of the British sandwich. "Ridiculous," he spluttered yesterday, dismissing the Wall Street Journal's attack. "Coming from the home of junk food, I find this quite extraordinary."
But there are still some who believe that, with the exception of the "gourmet" chains, there has been little evolution since the days when the British Rail sandwich was staple fodder for stand-up comedians.
In the London office of the New York Times, Sarah Lyall, a staff correspondent, gave her considered opinion. "British sandwiches are repulsive," she said. "You walk into a sandwich shop and see a glass case containing glutinised lumps of stuff with crusty bits on top.
"They use the same spoon for all the ingredients, so you get prawns leaking into your ham or tuna. Some of the mixtures are gross. Why do you guys put corn in everything? And to be honest, I've evolved past white bread. The ingredients in America are much fresher and they're not disguised with a whole bunch of sauce slopped over them."
The difference in products, Ms Lyall believes, is a reflection of the British and American psyches. "You English have a tendency to be grateful for what you're given. Americans are much more demanding. They believe they have a right to fresh, good food." But Bill Bryson, the American author, had an unexpectedly kind word for the British sandwich. Mr Bryson, who criss-crossed the country by train for his travelogue, Notes from a Small Island, said: "When I was travelling across the Western Highlands, I couldn't help but notice British Rail's very fine chicken tikka sandwich. The British sandwich is something you can be very proud of now."Reuse content