I am not a fan of a sandwich. Years spent working in a press office where sandwiches were brought on a platter and any uneaten left to harden and curl at the edges managed to turn me off. Saying that, there are three sandwiches I would push you out of the way to eat. So let me tell you about the best sandwiches in London.
First we must tackle that eternal question: when is a sandwich a sandwich? Is a flatbread a sandwich? Does a wrap count? Well, I am not a purist but I will say that as long as there are two pieces of bread type material holding in a filling of some description, we have a sandwich. Whatever you believe, there is no doubt the idea originated in the Middle East. The classic sandwich as we now know it, was ‘created’ for a lazy English person in 1762?
As the story goes, John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, had a serious gambling problem. Since this caused him to spend hours on end at the table, he requested his cook to make him something he could easily eat without leaving the table and suggested they put the meat between two slices of bread. Et voilà - the sandwich was born! Apparently, he loved the bread/meat/bread arrangement so much he asked for it constantly and as the dish grew in popularity amongst London’s high society, it took on the earl’s name.
The 1980s then brought us a whole new era of sandwiches, pre-packaged in plastic. As working culture changed and people were more likely to spend their days behind a desk rather than being involved in physical labour, their eating habits changed accordingly. In the Spring of 1980, a manager of a Marks & Spencer store (very astutely, me thinks!) noticed that people were coming in to buy bread and make their own sandwiches for their office lunch. He talked to the head office and asked if he could make a selection of prepared sandwiches and so the sandwich in a plastic triangular box was born! Whether you think this is a godsend or you curse him for making you sit at your desk at lunch, M&S made a very important change to our eating habits at that time.
If this all sounds as though the invention of the sandwich was a bit of an accident and not the greatest contribution the British could have made to the culinary scene, let's take a closer look and allay your doubts or fears. This is a food that has and will keep evolving; it has certainly changed a lot since the 4th Earl of Sandwich ordered his first um, sandwich.
This brings us on to chef and Quo Vadis proprietor, Jeremy Lee. Jeremy is the creator of the Smoked Eel Sandwich aka the sandwich to end all sandwiches, the creme de la creme of filled bread on bread extravaganzas. For those who have read my post about jellied eels, you should know this is definitely my preferred way of eating eels. In fact, it is the only way I will eat eel. This is one fancy sandwich consisting of horseradish, smoked eel and dijon mustard on buttered and fried Poîlane bread. It is rich, it is decadent but at the end of the day, it is a sandwich and I love it for its simplicity.
Lee created this delicious recipe while working at the London Design Museum’s Blueprint Café, but it only later received the attention it deserved at Quo Vadis, London, where he refined the sandwich so it could become the beloved dish it is today! A sandwich of which to be proud and one I will be enjoying again as soon as I can.
My second sandwich on this delicious list is one I’ve been recommending to everyone as long as I can remember. I once took a chef and his partner on a food tour in summer of 2019. He owned restaurants around the USA and I took him to many of my favourite foodie haunts around London including Borough Market. We stopped at Kappacasein with its tiny kiosk on Stoney Street and I offered him a cheese toastie. He declined. He wasn’t that interested in a ‘grilled cheese.’ I fixed him with my best Paddington stare and bought one anyway.
‘If you don’t like it, I won’t let it go to waste!’
I watched as he bit into the crisp grilled Poîlane bread and hit the melted cheese fantasy that languished within. His face was a picture. What he expected was a meh grilled cheese but what he got was a taste explosion so delicious that even after the first bite he was trying to change the next day’s tour so that we could swing by again.
The owner of Kappacasein, William Oglethorpe (I call him Bill and he doesn’t seem to mind) is a cheesemaker and blessed he is. He makes by hand with love, passion and raw milk some of the most delightful cheeses in an arch in SE London. He then had the amazing idea to add some other of his favourite cheeses including Montgomery’s cheddar (amazing) with his truly delicious Bermondsey Hard pressed cheese with leek and onion. He then chose the Rolls Royce of breads, Poîlane for its outstanding ability not to crumble under pressure and for its outstanding taste and crunch.
Last, but by no means least, an absolute classic: the beigel. Beigel? Yes, beigel or bagel if you wish. It is pronounced bi-gul and not beagle. The eating of beagles is completely off limits.
This is the third of my favourite three sandwiches in London. It is the sumptuous smoked salmon and cream cheese from Brick Lane’s Beigel Bake. I am there all the time. Buying beigels for my tours, buying dozens for my brother's freezer or a couple for me. Always smoked salmon and cream cheese but I am also rather taken with the salt beef with a pickle but hold the mustard!
What is a beigel/bagel? It is Polish in origin; the hole in the middle makes sure there are no soggy centres. The delicious crust is all due to the beigels being placed in hot water and then chucked into a hot oven where the steam develops the crustiness. There are a couple of beigel sellers in Brick Lane but historically, they would have been sold in the streets slotted on to dowling (sticks) and waved above the heads of other costermongers selling their wares. Of course, these were plain; you'd never your stick through the filling.
And they are cheap. So so so much cheaper than in the other bagel capital, New York. One more interesting fact - they are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year (cash only). Ah, the memories of staggering back from a party and stopping in for beigels for the morning and then eating them on the walk home.
Interested in learning about more London food? Join me on one of my food tours!
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As a tour guide and a lover of London, I will be writing a series of interesting stories about London; tales I have heard, places I have visited, tasty food I have eaten and delicious drinks I have enjoyed. Watch out for this every week or so.