‘Ey up sunshine! Make yourself useful and get your backside down to the kitchen, stick some meat in between a couple of slices of Warburton’s and be back ‘ere sharpish.’
These words, or something vaguely resembling them, were uttered by John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, to his valet. This may or may not have been so that he could carry on playing cards with his mates and still have something to eat without getting grease on his fingers or having to put his cards down to use a knife and fork. Food envy being what it is, when the other gamblers saw this concoction, they asked their men to get them ‘the same as Sandwich.’ Who cares whether it’s true or not? It’s a good tale.
Sandwiches have obviously been around for a lot longer than the eighteenth century when the above happened, but the dish was only called bread and meat or bread and cheese, so it was good to have a homogenous name, as to command the ingredients for a Reuben Sandwich would take all night.
The reason I’m regaling with this story as opposed to any other is because 19th – 25th May is British Sandwich Week – honest! The problem with British Sandwich Week is that we must have more names for sandwiches than any country in the world. Depending where you were brought up, they are butties, sarnies, baps, batches or stotties, to mention just a few. Strictly speaking, they should only be called sandwiches if made with bread from a sandwich loaf ,but the term has developed to encompass all kinds of concoctions in various types of bread, and even open sandwiches from Scandinavia where they only use one slice. How come a Yorkshireman didn’t think of that?
The most universally ubiquitous form of sandwich nowadays has to be the burger, whose meaning has also been changed over time to cover most hot meats in a bun, rather than just the ground beef version from Hamburg. Similarly, there is the hot dog with the roll not quite cut all the way through, so that the mustard or ketchup dribbles down your front rather than the sausage dropping through the bread and landing on your knee.
This is British Sandwich Week and where would a formal Afternoon Tea be without a selection of dainty delights, naturally with the crust removed. In 1972, I worked in East Parade next door but one to one of the first bespoke sandwich shops in Leeds. They had a mountain of buttered bread and you chose whatever combination of fillings you wanted from the display behind the counter. The permutations were endless and I am sure that I could have eaten there every day of my working life and not had the same butty twice. Nowadays it is all down to places like Pret a Manger to supply our needs, but it was apparently Marks and Spencer who sold the first ready-made prepacked sarnie in 1980. I wish I had bought shares back then in the company which makes triangular cartons.
Not only can you have myriad fillings in a wide range of bread, but there is also the choice of whether to have it cold or toasted. Come on, own up – you must have a sandwich maker, whether manual or electric, hidden away in a cupboard somewhere which you used for a week or two and then got so fed up with cheese and ham toasties that you never want another one – ever. You are probably still suffering from eating it straight away when the cheese was like napalm and stuck to the inside of your mouth whilst still just below boiling point.
I have been fortunate enough to sample sandwiches from many countries, the most spectacular of which are the ones from the delis in New York and Chicago, where you need a mouth the size of the Lincoln Tunnel to eat them. That explains a lot. The best displayed ones have to be those I saw on a market stall in Lisbon with the ham spilling out over the counter.
Say what you like, but there is one Great British Sandwich which stands out above all the others and that is the bacon butty. They used to be known as banjos because when people took a bite and the melted butter oozed out of the bread and down the front of their top, they tended to hold the sandwich in their left hand high and away from their body whilst brushing the butter with their right hand, thus making it look as though they were playing the aforementioned stringed instrument. As anyone will tell you, there is only one way to make a bacon sarnie, and that is their way. In fact, the only way to do it is my way, told you, which is to get free range back bacon with plenty of fat running through it, put it into a hot frying pan for a minute or so each side and then turn the heat down to medium until the bacon is cooked and the fat has rendered, thus forming a pool in the pan. You then take your unbuttered bread and drop it in the fat and fry only one side of each slice until it just turns brown. Put the bacon into the bread and cover with HP Sauce. Michelin star cuisine at its finest.
Finally, if you have ever wondered what food writers have for lunch when they are not dining out, what do you think? The trouble is that I don’t have a valet to send to the servants’ quarters like the Fourth Earl did, but at least I know that mine is going to be made just to my liking.
Stan writes Let’s Do Lunch for Leeds Living. He also reviews special events for food and drink, which sometimes takes him beyond Leeds. He has also developed an interest in writing on culture, most frequently dramatic and musical theatre.