From the first piece of bread that appeared on earth 30,000 years ago, a cooked hen on a hot stone, to today’s most expensive sandwich created by chef Martin Blunos, the humble “sandwich” has come a long way.
With all its endless variants, a sandwich is the quickest and most creative way to nourish oneself; despite being considered the epitome of a popular street food, a sandwich can also become an emblematic example of refined fine dining.
And who has never wondered what exactly inspired the first human to cut two pieces of bread and stick something appetizing in the middle? From Italian panino to the Middle Eastern pita to the French baguette, almost every nation has its own version of the sandwich, although it’s particularly popular in Western countries.
Typically, bread has always been paired with savoury foods, which help compensate for its insipidity – and in fact, salami and cheese are one of the happiest culinary marriages ever to take place. There are those who believe that the first sandwich, or in this case, panino, was created in Italy, when the Ancient Romans at ham boiled in the cooking water of dried figs (to make it sweeter) with bread. And even then, the meal’s outstanding feature was evident: this was a way someone could feed himself while standing up – a kind of forerunner to fast food.
For the whole Medieval era, bread became useful as a kind of edible surface for the other ingredients that could be piled up atop focaccia or loaves and until the arrival of the fork, bread was used to help collect food.
The English, however, claim to have brought the idea into its modern-day version. In the mid-1700s, the fourth Count of Sandwich, the politician and traveler John Montagu, is said to have been such an avid worker that he needed a way to feed himself properly without spending much time at the table. His enemies, instead, claimed that he was an avid gambler and that, on a binge, he’d refuse to stop playing even when hungry and order his butler to bring him some roast meat between two slices of bread.
Whatever the context, the idea caught on and the sandwich as we know it began making its way around the world. (It’s also said that one of his descendents, the 11th Earl, works in a sandwich restaurant in the United States.)
Inevitably, since the “invention” of the sandwich, the debate has been constant as to which kind of bread is the most suitable for use. Curious? Consult the English bible on the subject, the English Bread and Yeast Cookery (Cookery Library) by the author Elizabeth David.
Over time, however, every nation and cuisine has slowly codified its own version of a sandwich with thousands of variations: creativity reigns supreme when it comes to both the filling and the bread. From the other side of the Ocean, the Club Sandwich was born – an elite version made with chicken, which was most likely created aboard the double-decker “club cars” of early trains in America that traveled from New York to Chicago in the 1930's and 1940's.
In 1930 James Beard, the American chef and food writer wrote the following about the Club Sandwich in his book, James Beard's American Cookery: «Nowadays the sandwich is bastardized because it is usually made as a three-decker, which is not authentic (whoever started that horror should be forced to eat three-deckers three times a day the rest of his life), and nowadays practically everyone uses turkey and there's a vast difference between turkey and chicken where sandwiches are concerned.»
In France, baguettes are spread with butter and stuffed full with ham and gruyere cheese; in Mexico they take the shape of tortillas or tacos, filled with spiced meat and cheese and then folded in half.
Even the kebab is the Middle Eastern version of a street food panino and its popularity has been embraced by the entire world: the concept is the same of the Greek pita – spicy, rotisserie-cooked meat, served in a flat pocket bread.
In Northern Europe bread is made with a wide variety of grains, most commonly rye. Popular fillings for their smorrebred are salmon, eel, or smoked fish, paté or strong-flavoured cheeses. Among the hundreds of Japanese variants, there’s the Katsusando, which is made from fried pork cutlets, shredded cabbage and sauce.
In Italy, the simplest and most beloved panino is the one typically made from salami. That being said, panini of all kinds have captured the affections of even the Michelin-starred chefs, like Gualtiero Marchesi who just celebrated his own 81 years simultaneously with the 80th anniversary of the famous Negronetto brand of salami by inventing a special sandwich.
Wondering about the most expensive sandwich in the world that I mentioned at the beginning? It was created by the Michelin-starred BBC television chef, Martin Blunos. The bread is made with natural yeast and extra-virgin olive oil. The sandwich filling is composed of sliced quail egg, black tomato, thin slices of figs and apples, a 100 year-old balsamic vinegar and a special white truffle cheese. Ah, and of course, a sprinkling of gold dust. Best enjoyed with a glass of Krug. And not eaten while standing up.