The sandwich

The French may have given the world coq au vin and Béarnaise sauce, but at least we have given them the sandwich.  Like so many peculiarly British inventions, its brilliance lies in its ability to adapt and absorb ideas from every imaginable culture from the American beef burger to Chinese Peking duck.  

The sandwich was created in 1760 as a palatable convenience food.  John Montagu, fourth Earl of Sandwich was, like his contemporaries, an enthusiastic gambler.  Keen not to be distracted from his play by the formality of a meal, he ordered some beef to be placed between bread so that he could continue at the table.  Within two years, everyone who was anyone was eating ‘the sandwich.’ 

By 1775, books such as The Lady’s Assistant by C Mason were instructing their readers to ‘Put some very thin slices of beef between thin slices of bread and butter, cut the ends off neatly, lay them in a dish.  Veal and ham cut thin may be served in the same manner.’  Meat was the preferred filling of every Englishman - we were not overly fond of vegetables in those days.   It could, of course, have other fillings.  Mrs Sawbridge, for example, an early 19th-century beauty, placed a £100 note, left on her dressing table by an elderly adorer, between two slices of bread and butter and ate it to express her contempt for him.  

Never slow to follow fashion, a man who became known as ‘the original ham sandwich’ had already started selling home-made sliced gammon and mustard sandwiches to the shopkeepers and clerks queuing outside the London theatres in 1850. According to Henry Mayhew in London Labour and The London Poor, he was a failed coffee-shop keeper.  His trade proved so successful that within weeks he had intense competition. 

The sandwich had finally come of age.  It was eaten throughout British society and consequently, frequently suffered from the problems you might expect from bad cooking.  Oscar Wilde, for example, is reputed to have protested to a waiter  ‘When I ask for a watercress sandwich, I do not mean a loaf with a field in the middle of it.’  Flavours of the day were typically British – wafter-thin cucumber sandwiches for the drawing-room tea, jam for the nursery and dripping or black treacle for the poor. 

Yet the sandwich would not be truly British, until we had subjected it to intense experimentation.  By 1925 we were reinventing the sandwich, taking ideas from around the world.  Everything from baked beans to praline was squashed between two slices of bread. 

Mrs Leyel and Miss Hartley writing in The Gentle Art of Cookery were keen advocates. ‘If a busy City millionaire can lunch on sandwiches and desires nothing better, why shouldn’t sandwich lunches be popular in Mayfair?’ they ask.  They give their readers an array of exotic recipes including a Russian Sandwich - toasted bread with watercress butter, caviar and paprika; an Eastern  Sandwich - grated chicken, chopped almonds, cream and paprika; and a Delhi Sandwich - anchovies, sardines, chutney, egg,  butter and curry powder pounded into a paste. 

In 1926,  The Good Housekeeping Menu & Recipe Book urged their readers to offer sandwiches at garden parties, church social evenings and supper dances.  Who could resist their recipes for praline and apricot jam sandwiches; spinach and cream cheese in toast; and grated cheese and raisins on brown bread?

The lure of American glamour also appears to have encouraged our new-found culinary freedom.  As Leyel and Hartley state in their book  ‘in New York new and expensive sandwich shops are springing up in the most fashionable streets.’ By the 30s, the Savoy was offering American club sandwiches along with its foie gras, caviar, smoked salmon or watercress sandwiches for breakfast.  Tea dances, weddings and village fêtes consumed vast quantities of dainty white triangular and finger-shaped sandwiches.  No holiday was complete without banana sandwiches and wasps.

The second World War, however, introduced a dark period for the sandwich that was to last until the 80s.  Marguerite Patten explains ‘Although bread wasn’t rationed during the War, you didn’t want to waste the small amount of mousetrap cheese or spam that you were allowed.” The sandwich was neglected, but not forgotten by those who had loved the pre-War excitement of biting into its soft bread and discovering an unexpected but intensely flavoured filling.

Constance Spry (joint founder with Rosemary Hume of the Cordon Bleu Cookery School), for one, clearly romanticised such sandwiches.  In 1956, Spry published The Constance Spry Cookery Book, and countless brides embarked upon their married life guided by her impeccable taste.  Aspirational cooking had arrived.  Spry’s picnic rolls drew on French, Anglo-Indian and Scandinavian influences with stuffings such as omelette aux fines herbes, banana and chutney, and buckling fillets with cucumber dill pickle and lemon.  She urged cooks to make triple decker sandwiches with asparagus, bacon and toasted cheese or chicken, mushroom and lettuce - tres American.  

For the next 20 years, tea-time social oneupmanship was fought with dainty egg-and-cress bridge rolls and Shipton’s crab paste and cucumber sandwiches. Cordon Bleu cooks might create the odd smoked salmon sandwich for important board meetings in the City, but in general, the sandwich was regarded as fodder for the office workers.  It was a world dominated by tasteless bread filled with processed cheese, plastic ham and cold synthetic sausages.  Eating had become a necessary function rather than a pleasure. 

The renaissance came in 1980 and in the unlikely form of Marks & Spencer.  While grandiose chefs were considering the merits of raspberry vinegar and crunchy vegetables, M&S introduced the first pre-packed sandwiches in Britain. Starved of a decent lunch, their customers snaffled them up.  It was the beginning of a market that, according to the British Sandwich Association, is now valued at well over £3bn [in November 2000]. 

Meanwhile, Julian Metcalfe and Sinclair Beecham, founders of Pret a Manger were still spending every lunch hour queuing at their local sandwich bar.  The usual selection of fillings lay before them:  tuna and sweetcorn, pre-cooked bacon ready for the microwave, tasteless sliced tomatoes, prawn mayonnaise and mustard in a squeezy bottle.  ‘I got so frustrated’ remarks Metcalfe ‘that I convinced myself that I could do better.’  Their first shop opened in 1986.  By 1990 their freshly made sandwiches were filled with the latest ingredients.

Travel and an increasing interest in food was demolishing the dull utilitarian meal. Soon you could buy good sandwiches everywhere. You didn’t have to queue any more.  It was becoming the ultimate convenience food.  

With more than 2.2 billion sandwiches being sold in Britain each year [in 2000], competition is intense   ‘We try to introduce new sandwiches into our range every two weeks’ explains Lucy Strugnell, Product Developer for Marks & Spencer’s Food to Go (sandwiches).  She visits restaurants, shops and markets across the world for inspiration.  Her department constantly monitor its customers’ reactions.  As with many mass-produced prepackaged sandwiches, the bread has to be specially developed to ensure that it is neither too dry nor too soggy, as it has to be made, transported overnight before being sold the next day.  Fillings have to be sufficiently sticky to stay in the bread (hence all that mayonnaise), but they must also insulate the bread from the filling to prevent sogginess.  Texture has to be analysed.  They want crunchy crispness and melting softness all in one sandwich.  

As our passion for eating hand-held food increases, so M&S suspect that the future of the sandwich lies in pitta or tortilla-style ‘wraps’, making it easier for M&S to pile in the noodles and crushed chickpeas that they use now.   

A quick glance at London restaurants [in 2000] shows a different, more conservative picture.  Vong [no longer open] for example, now offer simple fusion sandwiches for lunch.  You could try a chilli lobster brioche club sandwich, with mango and daikon for crunch, or a grilled chicken in sourdough, with a Chinese black-bean mayonnaise and roasted red pepper and aubergine.  The Connaught hotel, on the other hand, has gone ultra-French with an expensive lunch time sandwich menu in the drawing room.  You can indulge in a  Scottish salmon and sorrel brioche sandwich, a foie gras (with black truffle) toasted sandwich or a rillette sandwich with a celeriac salad. 

However, if the sandwich is to remain true to its origins, it will have to continue to reflect our taste. Perhaps Julian Metcalfe is right when he says the sandwich is secure and that it is quality that is going to count in the future.  Good, simple bread with superb ingredients, regardless of whether they are organic ham or Thai chicken.

This article was first published in The Observer Magazine 12 November 2000. Patrice de Villiers created this extraordinary photograph to accompany it. 


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