The nations favourite sandwich by chef & author, Ian Dowding
My dad couldn’t cook; he literally couldn’t boil an egg. We knew this because Mother went away for a few days and left a fridge full of ready meals so Dad wouldn’t need to cook. When she got back the top of the cooker was in a horrible mess. ‘What happened?’ she asked. ‘Well I tried to boil an egg,’ he explained, ‘and it flared up.’ No, we didn’t understand either.
But there were two things, food wise, where Dad was brilliant. One was baking potatoes and the other was his legendary sandwiches. He baked the potatoes in the ashes under the fire and they would come out with crispy, slightly burnt skins. Split, with a lash of butter and plenty of salt and pepper, the butter dribbled down your chin as you ate. You didn’t know if the gritty crunch was from the ash or the salt and pepper but we didn’t care.
He claimed that his potato skill came from being starved at boarding school so he used to steal potatoes from the farmer’s field next door and bake them in the boiler house. He was eventually discovered and expelled. Where his sandwich skill came from we never did discover but you wouldn’t find anything like them in the supermarket today. We used to call them two-handers because you needed to hold them in two hands, so the plentiful fillings didn’t fall out.
A typical sandwich might comprise cold meat and stuffing from Sunday’s roast, along with pickles, peanut butter, slices of cheese, crisps, lettuce, tomatoes, sliced cold potatoes, mayonnaise, gherkins – basically anything that was in the fridge at the time. He also had a unique way with the bread; he would butter the end of the loaf, cut a slice, then butter the end of the loaf again – etc.
Bland, limp supermarket sandwiches have now become the norm. Alright if you are travelling or taking a quick lunch break, but not the sort of thing to inspire wonder, praise or even poetry. The Earl of Sandwich didn’t know what he was starting when he ordered meat between two slices of bread, so he didn’t have to leave the gambling tables. No doubt it wasn’t the first time it had been done but the clever thing was he gave it a name albeit unwittingly.
Bread is just as important as the filling for a good sandwich. It must be rye for that typical New York favourite with pastrami and pickles. Bread snobs may sneer at packet, white sliced bread but a bacon sandwich is not a bacon sandwich with anything else – lathered in HP sauce, of course.
Everything from the club sandwich to the chip butty has its place in British culture – the thin crustless cucumber sandwich at a WI tea, or the smoked salmon and cream cheese at a smart wedding reception. There is nothing you can’t put between two slices of bread.
Everyone has their favourite and their bête-noir. Not everyone likes the idea of peanut butter and jam or banana and Marmite but there are combinations that are classic – egg and tomato, tuna and sweetcorn, bacon, lettuce and tomato, ham and mayonnaise and that’s before we get onto toasted sandwiches.
Sandwiches are the ultimate fast food however they are packaged. What is a hamburger but a sandwich, the Mexican tortilla wrap, or the kebab-meat filled pita bread for that ravenous post-pub walk home? They’re all meant to be eaten on the move. No cutlery or plate required.
A sandwich can also be dessert. This was something I had at a little restaurant in France. You can make it with ready bought stuff. Take two slices from a brioche loaf, and a fat, ripe, purple fig. Cut the fig into thick slices and spread the slices of brioche with crème patisserie (oh, alright, custard). Make a sandwich with the fig slices. Place it on a baking tray and put it into a very hot oven for ten minutes. The brioche toasts very quickly to a golden brown and the custard and fig juices start to melt into the soft brioche. Cut it in half, or quarters if you’re posh, and drizzle it with honey. Instant dessert.