The earl of sandwiches

Categories: Expert guidance

In celebration of British Sandwich Week, Ed Smith sets out to create the perfect example of one of our great national icons

We are a nation of sandwich eaters. The greatest nation, in fact. For in no other country do you find the number of sandwich shops we have, nor the rows and rows of pre-prepared sandwiches you see in each and every one of our supermarkets.

It should come as no surprise, then, that three-and-a-half billion sandwiches are purchased in the UK every year, and a further eight billion are made at home. Not for us the steaming bowls of noodle soup you see in Asia (Ha! You can’t eat that when on the tube crammed underneath someone else’s armpit), or France’s insistence on a three-course bistro meal every lunch time (pah! I’d rather eat at my desk, thank you very much).

I’m proud of our role as inventor and chief appreciator of the sandwich. Praise be for John Montague, 4th Earl of Sandwich, and his request for cold beef to be served between slices of toast so that his card game could carry on without pause. We ought to place this quick, economic, portable meal firmly in the premier league of game-changing Great British achievements—somewhere between inventing the world wide web, most major ball games and the wellington boot.

Persuaded by this patriotism, I find myself in an unusually positive mood about a ‘National X Week’. Normally, I think there are too many of these things to want to get behind any of them. But British Sandwich Week? By Jove, I’m with it all the way.

Indeed, I’ve decided British Sandwich Week needs a celebratory Borough Market sandwich to go with it. Behold, then: ham hock, egg, caper, cornichon and rocket on Cathedral loaf.

Here’s how to do it.

Choose your bread
Slice two pieces of Cathedral loaf, about 2cm thick.

The question of which bread to use for a sandwich is not a matter to be taken lightly. I have only one general rule—never use rubbish bread (it’s two-thirds of the meal!). Beyond that, there are so many different options that the subject is another blog post altogether (bun, bap, baguette, bagel, tin loaf, round sourdough, long sourdough, white, wholegrain, seeded, rye…).

So, to cut a long story short, I’ll simply note that I plumped for Bread Ahead’s Cathedral loaf, which has a lovely, bouncy crumb, a solid crust, a subtle but definite flavour (salty), and the structural integrity to hold this sandwich’s bulky load. Olivier’s Le Rustic would have also done a worthy job.

Carefully sliced, a chunk of Cathedral loaf makes four sandwiches.

Spread a thin layer of butter, mayonnaise and mustard on one side of each of the bread slices.

Unless you’ve a juicy, wet filling (coronation chicken, egg mayonnaise), you need to lubricate your loaf. Sometimes that lubrication comes in the form of chutney or mustard, but most of the time we’re talking butter and/or mayonnaise.

In this instance, I felt the sandwich required butter (at room temperature, so as not to rip the bread), a small layer of mayonnaise AND Dijon mustard. Crazy I know. But it is British Sandwich Week. Reader, I found all of these things in my fridge.

Make a filling
Cover the bottom slice of bread with a generous layer of flaked ham hock.

A good sandwich filling is all in the imagination and preparation. It takes no more time to assemble this sandwich than a simple cheese and chutney number. But it does require the tiniest amount of work prior to that assembly.

Ham hock is a brilliant cut of meat and perfect sandwich fodder—whether it is used humbly or in celebration. Not only is it cheap, but it’s packed with flavour and, once cooked, simply flakes into easily biteable pieces. There’s nothing worse than a sandwich whose filling isn’t easily bitten through…

A one-kilo hock from The Ginger Pig cost me £4.50. I simply put this in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan and covered the hock with water by about 3cm. I added a bay leaf, a few cloves, peppercorns and half a teaspoon of fennel, then brought this to the boil, before simmering with the lid ajar for three hours. Finally, I allowed the meat to cool, discarded the gelatinous skin and then flaked it for the sandwiches.

That kilo of ham hock (once the bone is thrown away), will easily cover four of these mammoth sandwiches, or eight everyday ones.

A ham hock, mustard mayonnaise sandwich is more than good enough for an everyday lunch. But this is a celebration, and from here we step things up a notch.

Liberally sprinkle the ham hock with cornichons and capers. Top with good rocket. Smash a soft boiled egg over the other slice of bread. Capers bring a pop of salt and contrasting flavour to the ham (which could become monotonous). Cornichons do a similar thing, but they also bring texture and crunch.  

The rocket, bought from Chegworth Valley, is proper, peppery stuff. In another season, I would have gone for mustard leaves, but the rocket does well—it’s spicy, and like the cornichons brings texture too. Helpfully, a 100g bag suits four people.

A six-and-a-half minutes’ boiled egg adds decadence to the sandwich—a lovely, soft mouthfeel and a natural complement to the ham. I suppose this is an optional extra, though.

Season the egg-smashed side of bread with a load of freshly ground black pepper and a good pinch of sea salt. You wouldn’t ignore the salt and pepper for any hot meal, so don’t omit them from your sandwiches!

Place the egg-covered top slice face-down on the ham and rocket slice. Cut in half using a good bread knife—you’ve gone to the trouble of making a superlative sandwich, what a shame it would be if you squashed the contents and tore the bread because your knife wasn’t up to the job.