No such thing as a bad sandwich?Three historical sandwiches you won’t find in a meal deal

This past week was British Sandwich Week, so in honour of this most auspicious of occasions I thought I’d try out something a little different. After all, as the saying goes: “once you tire of sandwiches, you tire of life.”

The sandwich is one of my personal favourite foods; sweet, savoury, hot or cold – there is a sandwich out there for everyone. Perhaps you’re adventurous and won’t touch anything unless it contains whopping slices of 2-day marinated meat, at least three types of mayo and some sort of “slaw”. Maybe you prefer to keep it simple with a couple of slices of cheese and, if you’re feeling particularly daring, a smear of chutney.

If you’re the kind of person who enjoys a chip butty, good news: they count too! We don’t discriminate in the sandwich circle. There genuinely is no bad sandwich (apart from Tesco’s no-butter, no-mayo, wafer-thin ham. Dear God, why?)

Until recently, I thought that my marriage was built on the standard values of matrimony: love, respect and a mutual adoration of picnic food. Just this morning, however, my husband confessed to me that after working from home for so long he’s come to view sandwiches as – and I quote – “a bit of a ballache to make” and has switched his lunchtime allegiance to pot noodles.

So once again I find myself in the market for a new husband. Potential suitors please apply via my contact page.

The history of sandwiches.

We know the story, right? During a game of cards, John Montagu – 4th Earl of Sandwich – was so engrossed that he asked his servants to bring him a slice of meat between bread, rather than step away from the gambling table for his dinner. Thus the humble sandwich was born.

John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich.jpg
John Montagu mentally ranking all the sandwiches he had ever eaten.

Except that might not be 100% true. The first time this story is mentioned is in Pierre-Jean Grosley’s 1770 work A Tour to London; Or New Observations on England and its Inhabitants. Just in case his name wasn’t a giveaway, Monsieur Grosley was French, and his book was a collection of fairly dry remarks about the English.

Take, for example, his comments on trade between England and France which, were it not for the flowery language, could be straight from the pages of a post-Brexit trade agreement today:

…Whilst England draws articles of importance from France, such as wines, silks, etc., she supplies the French in return with nothing but trifles of little or no value.”

 A Tour to London; Or New Observations on England and its Inhabitants.

The origin of the sandwich itself is treated in fairly understated terms, considering how popular it would become. Grosely seemed more concerned with the fact it was being used as a means to allow “destructive” habits to continue:

The English, who are profound thinkers, violent in their desires, and who carry all their passions to excess, are altogether extravagant in the article of gaming: several rich noblemen are said to have ruined themselves by it… A minister of state passed four and twenty hours at a public gaming-table, so absorbed in play, that, during the whole time, he had no subsistence but a bit of beef, between two slices of toasted bread, without ever quitting the game.”

 A Tour to London; Or New Observations on England and its Inhabitants.

Of course this quote does rather beg the question: did he use the toilet at all in that 24 hours?

Grosley’s story could of course be completely true, but it could also be a dig at the slovenly ways of the English: too addicted to gambling to rise from their card games and too vulgar to appreciate anything more sophisticated than hunks of meat in bread.

The second problem with Grosley’s story is that it appears 8 years after the first literary reference to sandwiches. In the 1762 Journal of Edward Gibbon, he mentions men at a club dining on sandwiches:

“I dined at the Cocoa Tree. That respectable body, of which I have the honour of being a member, affords every evening a sight truly English. Twenty or thirty, perhaps, of the first men in the kingdom, in point of fashion and fortune, supping at little tables covered with a napkin, in the middle of a coffee-room, upon a bit of cold meat, or a sandwich, and drinking a glass of punch.”

Journal of Edward Gibbon.

So either Grosley got his dates wrong and was recounting an earlier story, or he wasn’t witness to the creation of the very first sandwich after all.

So no sandwiches before the 18th century?

Though the term ‘sandwich’ might be an 18th century invention, putting meat, or cheese, or veg into bread isn’t. In fact, it’s not even an English invention.

Every culture has its own version of the sandwich, and the origins of using bread to hold a filling is probably as old as bread itself – in which case we’re talking neolithic, some some 12,000 years ago.

The 1st century Jewish teacher Hillel the Elder instituted the eating of a ‘sandwich’ using matzah (unleavened bread) and maror (bitter herbs) on Passover. By eating this sandwich – called korech – he said that Jewish people would experience the taste of both the bitterness of slavery and sweetness of freedom.

Ancient Babylonian cylinders also show depictions of flatbreads with meat on top of them in what Cathy Kaufman suggests may have been forerunners of souvlaki sandwiches. Historians A.W. Lassen, E. Frahm and K. Wagensonner highlight a humorous cuneiform text known as “The Infernal Kitchen” which contains an allusion to bread with a filling:

Month of Šabaṭu, what is your food?
– You shall eat still hot bread with the buttock of a donkey stallion stuffed with dog excrement and the excrement of dust flies.

A literal shit sandwich.*

Ancient Babylonians debating the merits of margarine over butter.
Photo by Nic McPhee.

As the authors point out, this ‘recipe’ is not a real one, but one that combines authentic elements with ridiculous ones to create a semi-satirical commentary on food preparation and reliance on seasonal ingredients.

Please don’t make that.

You just can’t get hold of donkey buttock anymore.

Anyway, in honour of British Sandwich Week I decided to make three sandwiches that you don’t see on cafe menus anymore.

For ease and clarity I’ve decided to use only recipes that refer to sandwiches – rather than meat on flatbread or cheese stuffed rolls or the like.

Cheshire Sandwich

The first is found in John Farley’s 1811 work The London Art of Cookery and is called a Cheshire Sandwich.

TAKE anchovies, Cheshire cheese, and butter, in equal proportions; made mustard to the palate; pound well in a marble mortar, and with this composition spread thin slices of bread, and cover with thin slices of any kind of cold meat, and again with bread, & cut into shapes.

The London Art of Cookery

This actually didn’t sound too bad at all. In fact, it sounded like something I would choose to eat already – and had. A week ago or so I attempted a WW1 version of this (almost identical except for the meat), and it was very pleasant. Salty and very savoury, this was a sandwich I was looking forward to.

I chose beef as my cold meat in honour of the Earl of Sandwich but honestly I think I would have preferred it without. The beef just added another flavour to what was already a pretty bold palate and I’m not 100% sure it all worked together. 6/10.

Toast Sandwich

The next sammie was from the trustiest Victorian stalwart of all: Mrs Beeton.

A few years ago I went out to lunch with a friend who ordered a hash brown sandwich with bread sauce on the side. At the time I made fun of her carbohydrate obsession. But it turns out her love of carbs may have had a Victorian precedent:

Place a very thin piece of cold toast between 2 slices of thin bread-and-butter in the form of a sandwich, adding a seasoning of pepper and salt.

The Book of Household Management

I mean, Beeton had given up by that point in the book, hadn’t she? I imagined her writing this recipe out as a dare, chuckling to herself as she wondered which idiot – which unsophisticated, dullen palated dunce – would bother making a bread sandwich?

Anyway, I popped a slice of bread into the toaster and then tried to forget about it until it had gone cold – an easy feat as I’m a mum to a toddler; I can’t remember the last time I got to eat something straight away.

This was not terrible, but definitely not what I’d call a sandwich. It was just three slices of salty bread – one of them slightly crunchier than the other – with butter. Decent, but not delicious. 4/10.

Dandelion leaves and Worcester Sauce Sandwich

Leave the weirdest til last, right?

This recipe is from Florence White’s Good Things in England and is a recipe she claims dates to 1929.

Thin slices of nicely buttered white bread, with just a speck of Worcester sauce spread on them, sprinkled thickly with finely chopped young dandelion leaves, and covered with a thin slice of brown bread and butter.

Good Things in England

Finally – an excuse not to cut the lawn! Dandelion leaves get bitter as they age so choosing young leaves was important here. I managed to grab a soggy handful from the garden that seemed small and fresh and onto a Worcester sauce specked slice of bread they went.

This was an odd one. It wasn’t unpleasant but butter was the main taste, with a very green, quite bitter herbal aftertaste at the back of my throat. Perhaps my leaves weren’t as young as I’d thought. 5/10.

L to R: Cheshire, Dandelion leaf, Toast.
I haven’t added the second layer of bread in order to show off these highly photogenic fillings.

No such thing as a bad sandwich?

I still stand by this – sandwiches are the greatest invention of all time and unless you hate sandwiches and only like boring, butterless, plastic cheese on plastic bread type things you really can’t go wrong.

Were these sandwiches ‘perfect’? No, not even close. No sooner had I finished my dandelion lead concoction I made a peanut butter and golden syrup sandwich for pudding and to get the slightly bitter taste out of my mouth. And as I munched on that delicious bready treat I realised that maybe not every sandwich was meant to be perfect; maybe some are there to remind us of the really great sandwiches of our past, and encourage us to keep searching for the truly remarkable sandwiches of our futures.

E x

*I also toyed with a joke about “ass ass”.

Dandelion and Worcester Sauce Sandwich

A handful of young dandelion leaves
A slice of brown bread and a slice of white bread
Worcester sauce

  1. Butter a slice of white bread and shake a few drops of Worcester sauce on top.
  2. Wash and finely chop your dandelion leaves and strew them over the buttered bread.
  3. Butter a slice of brown bread and place on top.

Toast Sandwich

3 slices of bread
Salt and Pepper

  1. Toast one slice of bread
  2. While waiting, butter the other slices of bread.
  3. Once the bread has toasted, let it cool and then roll it out thinly with a rolling pin.
  4. Sprinkle the toast with salt and pepper, and lay in between the slices of buttered bread.

Cheshire Sandwich

3 anchovies
A handful of grated cheshire cheese
A tablespoon of butter
A slice of meat
Mustard powder

  1. Pound the anchovies into a paste in a pestle and mortar.
  2. Add the mustard, cheese and butter and then mix to combine and form a smooth paste.
  3. Spread this on a slice of bread and then top with a slice of meat.
  4. Butter another slice of bread and lay on top.

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