Although the nation of England cannot legitimately claim all of the credit for the creation of the culinary masterpiece that is the sandwich, it is fair to say that England was the first nation to develop the art of the sandwich and this humble construction is now reckoned to be one of our most popular meals, enjoyed by everyone from school children to office workers.
In the UK, it has been shown that we eat an astonishing 11 billion sandwiches every single year. In fact, some estimates say that the average English adult will end up eating more than 18,000 sandwiches in the course of their lifetime. And it isn’t hard to see why the sandwich is so ubiquitous. It is the perfect form of modern convenience food. The sandwich is portable, convenient, and can be thrown together in moments at any time of day. And in our fast-moving modern world, with the pace of change growing ever stronger, the sandwich is unlikely to relinquish its hold on the nation’s culinary imagination any time soon.
The sandwich, or variations of the sandwich, can be traced back many centuries, but the modern incarnation of the sandwich supposedly derives from an event that took place in 1762.
Culinary legend has it that the sandwich was created by John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich. He was a particularly keen gambler who would regularly spend hours at a time at the card table. It is reputed that in the middle of one particularly long session, he asked the house chef to bring him something to eat that could be consumed without him having to leave his seat at the table. The chef satisfied his demands by bringing him some meat wrapped in two slices of bread, thus accidentally giving rise to the modern snack. Montagu was such a fan of the snack that he ate it all the time, and as it caught on in fashionable London circles, it soon became associated with his title.
Of course, John Montagu’s chef was not the first person in the world to come up with the idea of putting a variety of fillings between slices of bread. In fact, we it is likely that Montagu may have picked up the idea himself during his travels in the Mediterranean, where he is likely to have eaten both Turkish and Greek mezze platters. These are distinctive meals that involve the ‘sandwiching’ of meats, cheeses and dips between pieces of bread.
Whatever the ultimate origins of the sandwich were, the snack became wildly popular. Within a few months of Montagu’s famous culinary innovation, Edward Gibbon was mentioning the sandwich by name in one of his diary entries, revealing that he had seen some of the country’s leading men eating sandwiches in a restaurant. In 1851, the Victorian social commentator Henry Mayhew gave an estimate that 436,800 sandwiches were sold on the streets of London on a yearly basis.
In the decades since the sandwich’s early popularity, the snack has grown from a luxury restaurant food to an everyday and regular snack and ultimately to a staple of the English diet. Sandwiches have proven to be the perfect meal for a range of different lifestyles, ideally suited to the modern world.
So popular is the sandwich in England that this humble snack is largely behind the success of the convenience food market, which is now estimated to be worth as much as £20 billion a year. Not only that, but English sandwich makers are much in demand around the world, as the convenience and flexibility of the food, along with the famous story of its creation, have caught the imagination of consumers and diners on every continent.
And as the sandwich takes on ever more importance within the English food industry, it is being developed into ever more elaborate configurations. So ubiquitous is the sandwich that it is even possible to trace the developing tastes of the English public in the way that the sandwich has changed over the years.
If you were to head back in time to the 1970s, you would find the humble cheese and ham sandwiches dominating the sandwich market, while the 1980s saw the introduction of the more exotic tuna sandwich. In the last few years, the proliferation of innovative new cafes and eateries has led to some remarkable sandwich experimentation, and our popular sandwiches reflect this diversity and cosmopolitan outlook. So here are some of England’s most popular modern sandwich combinations:
Hummus and Falafel
The growth of veganism in England as well as the increasing diversity over the last 30 years of the English food scene has led to a fascinating array of tastes and flavours being introduced into the national culture and this is reflected in the combination of two of the most popular vegan staples, falafel and hummus, which have come together to provide an intriguing twist on the English sandwich.
These two ingredients have always been ideally matched, but what has given them a big boost is the widespread availability of falafel mixes which means that they are now within the reach of the average English shopper. The result is a vegan friendly sandwich that offers a luxurious and rich taste that is popular with non-vegans and vegans alike.
The method of preparation can vary depending on preference, but the typical option for this form of sandwich is to spread hummus onto two slices of bread, and then add a thick layer of salad. Typically, the salad will include red onion, red pepper, cucumber or grated carrot. Falafel is then added to the mix before the second slice of bread, making a healthy and tasty sandwich.
Bacon Lettuce and Tomato
It is a simple recipe, but the combination of bacon, lettuce, and tomato is an enduringly classic sandwich filling. The key to a successful BLT is that if you use good quality ingredients for the B, the L and the T, you will have a fine finished product. For the very best BLT, the bacon needs to be freshly fried, hot, and crispy, while the lettuce must be any sort of lettuce other than iceberg, providing that it has a strong bite, while the bread must be toasted.
The origins of the BLT are not entirely clear. Some believe that it could be an indirect descendent of tea-time sandwiches dating from the Victorian era, while others will tell you that it is an American variation on the classic club sandwich, which was popularized in the dining cars of America’s bustling railways. Whatever the truth, there is no doubt that the BLT is a hugely popular English sandwich.
BBQ Pulled Pork
Look away if you are vegan or vegetarian, but the BBQ pulled pork sandwich is always a big hit at barbeques. The pulled pork sandwich is, of course, derived form an American barbecue dish. Pulled pork was developed in the southern states of the US and is essentially the result of slow cooking a shoulder of pork. This is usually done over wood, although sometimes it is prepared in a slow cooker. The meat is then shredded before being mixed with a sauce of choice.
While it is not traditionally an English sandwich, we have put our own traditional spin on the BBQ pulled pork sandwich. In the English version, the meat is seasoned with a mixture of condiments, but ketchup, vinegar, brown sugar and Worcestershire sauce are the most popular and provide a quintessentially English take on this most American of meats. The preparation time for this sandwich is significant, but the result is a truly delicious and luxurious feast for meat eaters.
While old fashioned sandwich options, such as cheese and ham may be in decline, there is one form of sandwich that seemingly will never be out of fashion in England.
The humble bacon sandwich, served sometimes with or without brown sauce, and sometimes supplemented by other English breakfast foods, including sausages, eggs or tomatoes, remains a firm favourite with English diners. The beauty of the bacon sandwich is that it works both as a quick and convenient breakfast or as a satisfying lunch.
It has even played a part in a General Election campaign, when the Labour Party leader Ed Miliband’s apparent difficulties eating a bacon sandwich made tabloid headlines, though that probably says more about the English press than the Labour leader. Anyone who has ever tried to eat a bacon sandwich will surely have plenty of sympathy for Ed Miliband, but although they can certainly be a messy treat, there are few things that can hit the spot on a cold English morning like a good old bacon sandwich.
Brie and Grape
The humble cheese sandwich has certainly evolved a long way. For working men in the first half of the twentieth century, the humble cheese and pickle sandwich was a staple lunchtime snack, though other combinations, such as the ubiquitous cheese and tomato and the pungent cheese and onion also have their fans to this day.
Yet to the more sophisticated modern sandwich eater, a slab of cheddar on a couple of slices of white bread won’t cut the (sandwich) mustard. For a more interesting take on the cheese sandwich, English lunch diners have long combined slices of soft Brie with sharp, tangy grapes, for a perfect combination. To add more flavour and texture to the mixture, the brie and grape sandwich can also be supplemented with rocket, spinach, watercress and herbs.
Avocado toast has become a phenomenally popular breakfast food over the last decade, but if you want an upgrade on this modern-day classic, the Avocado sandwich is an interesting option.
In fact, avocado is an incredibly versatile food source, and is packed with healthy fats so it can work well with a variety of fillings, including chicken, turkey or roast beef. But it is also tasty and luxurious enough to eat on its own, perhaps with a little rocket or a sprinkling of herbs, and toasted rye bread is another important component in the ultimate avocado sandwich.