‘Fortunes are made in the City of London out of sandwiches, yet to the average household a sandwich is merely two slices of bread and butter and a piece of ham palmed off in a hurry on those who desire to picnic, but the proper accompaniment of a sandwich is not the school boy’s ginger beer or railway station coffee, but a glass of Champagne.” Mrs C F Leyel & Mrs Olga Hartley, The Gentle Art of Cookery (1925)
As Afternoon Tea Week begins it’s worth bearing in mind that little thought seems to go into the contents of this crucial element for this erstwhile tradition. Smoked salmon or ham and mustard are fine, if a little pedestrian, but wouldn’t it be nice to have something a bit different between those two slices of bread? The vegetarian option is by far the least adventurous with cheese, egg and cress or ubiquitous cucumber being the most common offerings.
I am not the first (or I am sure the last) to lament the poor show put on by sandwiches. In 1822 the estimable Dr William Kitchiner declared
‘Sandwiches properly prepared, are an elegant and convenient Luncheon or Supper, – but have got out of Fashion – from the bad manner in which they are commonly made.’ The Cook’s Oracle.
Despite this savoury snack having been invented in Britain, Jeremy Round (author of The Independent Cook (1988)) was convinced many other nations surpassed our ability to make a decent sandwich with America topping his list of sandwich aficionados. He blamed our obsession with butter and cheap ingredients (‘plastic cheese, spongy ham, fibrous beef, fart smelling eggs’ and ‘economy loaves of pre-sliced pap’).
I find it hard to get excited by any sandwich made with pre-sliced bread. Without a doubt the best sandwiches are made with freshly baked (but thoroughly cooled) bread. Regular or sourdough, white or brown – take your pick but it must be real bread and not something that has the ability to remain ‘fresh’ for a week or more. Elizabeth David recommends potato or rice breads for sandwiches which would certainly make an interesting change. Dr Kitchiner believed the bread should be cut ‘neatly and with a sharp knife’. My own grandmother would butter the end of a fresh, white farmhouse loaf and cut the thinnest of slices to make delicate finger sandwiches (although I prefer a thicker sandwich myself).
For this year’s Afternoon Tea Week I propose to ring the changes with two vegetarian recipes I found in Mrs Leyel’s book.
Fifth Avenue Sandwich
Makes 1 sandwich
- 50g fresh leaf spinach, washed
- 1 large, hard boiled egg
- 1-2 tbsp tartare sauce
- 2 slices brown bread
- Place the spinach in a microwaveable bowl and cook on high for 30 seconds to 1 minute or until the leaves are just wilted. Alternatively, wilt in a small frying pan or saucepan over a medium heat. Drain and squeeze out as much moisture as possible. Once the spinach is cool it can be roughly chopped.
- Dice the egg and place it in a bowl with the cooled spinach and 1 tbsp tartare sauce. Mix thoroughly adding more sauce if you think it’s required. Spread over one slice of bread then top with the other.
Makes enough for 2-3 sandwiches
This can be used as a sandwich filling but I prefer to serve it spread on oatcakes.
- 1 x 340g tin cannellini or haricot beans in water, drained
- 1-2 tsp grated horseradish or horseradish sauce
- 1-2 tsp Dijon mustard
- 1 tsp grated shallot (or a small clove of crushed garlic, if preferred)
- A good squeeze of lemon juice
- Salt to season
- A few sprigs parsley, finely chopped
- 1 stick of celery, finely chopped
- Place the drained beans, 1 tsp horseradish and mustard, the grated shallot or crushed garlic, lemon juice and the parsley in a food processor. Pulse to a smoothish paste.
- Add the chopped celery the pulse again to thoroughly combined.