February 1, 2013 7:19 pm

Two slices short …

Sandwiches used to involve a trip to the deli counter. But sadly the prospect of bespoke brilliance is fading fast
Illustration depicting 'desert island' food©Richard Allen

If I had to choose a “desert island” food or a death row last request I can say, without having to ponder for too long, that it would be the sandwich. There’s something manly, honest and uncomplicated about the sandwich. At its simplest, it’s a lump of something slipped between two bits of bread to ease its transit to the mouth. The story that it was invented by the Earl of Sandwich when he needed something he could eat quickly and cleanly without leaving the card table is almost certainly apocryphal, but it makes so much sense that it no longer matters. The sandwich is the ultimate logical food, evolving out of hunger, convenience and an absence of formality.

America has always understood the sandwich. There are counters in Manhattan where the combinations of fillings, seasonings, bread and condiments are so numerous and complex as to be, to all intents and purposes, infinite. At some of the Jewish delis, sandwiches are served by legendarily surly staff, containing stacks of sliced meats weighing up to a kilogramme. An inexperienced diner is unsure whether to try to eat it and fail, or set up a series of base camps and plan the assault over days. Cognoscenti ask for a doggy bag. Strangely though, some of the most culinarily sophisticated cultures have failed to appreciate the sandwich’s full potential.

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France can claim but a single sandwich worthy of the name, the pan bagnat, made by lobbing an entire Niçoise salad between two halves of a loaf, soaking well in olive oil and pressing under weights. Sadly it has never really travelled beyond its home turf of coastal Provence and the rest of the country remains a sandwich desert. Ask for a ham or cheese baguette and you’ll get just that: ham … or cheese … in a baguette.

In Italy, birthplace of some of the most exciting charcuterie on the planet, there’s a similarly minimal approach. A single slice of something, no matter how sublime, on a dry roll does not a sandwich make and no amount of rustic wine will ever make me change my mind.

We Britons should be masters of the sandwich. The UK sandwich market is worth £6.25bn per year or 3.25 billion sandwiches, according to the British Sandwich Association. New sandwich shops should have sprung up everywhere offering a choice of fillings and a choice of breads, but instead our most convenient food has become a “convenience food”.

Where the bread once had the structural integrity to hold a rich stuffing, it’s now a yielding pabulum, soft enough not to challenge the toothless or idle, brown enough to promise some health benefit without scaring anyone off.

The filling is no longer a judicious combination of protein and foliage created to our desire, but some patent mix of “chicken tikka mayonnaise” or “Moroccan spiced roasted vegetables and hummus”. Where we used to be able to specify a bespoke sandwich we are now offered that most false of benefits, “a choice” of half-a-dozen standard fillings, sealed in a box.

I don’t doubt for a second that, precisely as advertised, the ingredients are spanking fresh and that every single sandwich was handmade that day. The sandwich industry has such a spectacularly efficient supply chain that such wonders are possible – the only downside being that it is no longer has anything to distinguish it from any other part of the fast food business. The sandwich used to be the thinking food lover’s salvation from a burger in a styrofoam box. Now, as we are enjoined to “grab ’n’ go” – were there ever two-and-a-third more depressing words in any language? – the sandwich is no longer the magnificent thing it was but a mass-feeding solution, devoid of joy.

I could really do with a sandwich right now. White split-tin loaf, one slice smeared with horseradish, one with Dijon mustard. I want rare roast beef, thinly sliced and laid down in satin folds. I want a slice of tomato, salted; some watercress; and just enough shredded lettuce to lighten things up.

Once I could have wandered into any half-decent sandwich bar and ordered one. Today, though I apparently have more choice than I’ve ever had before, it seems I can’t.

Tim Hayward is an FT Weekend contributing writer; tim.hayward@ft.com ; Twitter: @TimHayward

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