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A paean to the humble sandwich

Because cultures intertwine over the love of good bread

When I was young, cutting extra thick slices of a white farmer’s loaf, and toasting it under the grill was one of life’s great pleasures. Slathered with thick butter which melted into the deep, hot toast, this was my Saturday morning treat.

Toast has long been a comfort food, but almost up there alongside hot, buttered bread in my must-have list of basic regular foods is the humble sandwich. While my UK family get my regular desire to slap almost anything between two slices of whatever bread is available and serve it as is, (preferably with crisps), my Dubai family and friends don’t quite get the attraction.

I’ve been accused of eating too much bread. My partner pointed out to me that when I’m not eating a sandwich at my desk for lunch, I’ll be ordering a burger, or taking a bowl of soup, with, of course, bread or rolls.

But this stuff is the staff of life. It’s in my European genes. We need carby, stodgy bread to stave off the cold, right? My love of all things bread puts me in good company.

Grains of truth?

Rumour has it that leavened, or raised, bread was discovered when a wheat and water mixture was left in a warm place, causing the naturally-occurring yeast to produce a puffed-up dough. I don’t believe that. Something so good was surely no accident.

 Ancient humans, it is believed, gathered wild grains (like wheat) while out hunting for meat. Grinding them between stones and mixing with water, they made a sort of ‘gruel’, which went down well with the day’s meat. It wasn’t too long before someone thought to warm the mixture on the fire, unwittingly creating the world’s first unleavened bread. You can still find some of this down the back of the ‘kaak’ section in most of Dubai’s older bakeries.

These cave dwellers soon began making this ‘bread’ regularly, and so rather than searching for and gathering grains, began to grow them closer to their dwellings. Thus, they stopped leading a nomadic lifestyle, grew crops and became farmers. Welcome to the modern era, people.

Another school of thought suggests it wasn’t making bread from grain that lead early humans to settle down and concentrate on growing crops, rather another desire – to make drink.

“Available evidence suggests that our ancestors in Asia, Mexico, and Africa cultivated wheat, rice, corn, barley, and millet primarily for the purpose of producing alcoholic beverages,” US Archaeologist Patrick McGovern explains.

It perhaps comes as no surprise to discover that ancient Egyptians – some 4,000 years ago – added yeast to make bread rise. They are also credited with inventing a grinding process to create a coarse flour, improved upon by the Romans, who took their stone grain-grinding wheels with them everywhere they conquered. Armed with this information, you could surmise that pizza has been around for 2,000 years.

Next time you’re criticised for eating too much bread, remind your accuser that bread created modern, settled society.

Flour Power

With great bread comes great responsibility, as the saying doesn’t go.

A carbonised loaf of Roman bread

The greatness of the Roman Empire was built on many things, one of which was bread. The Collegium Pistorum, or College of Bakers, held a great deal more power than many similar organisations, representing the interests of shoemakers, junk collectors and metal vessel makers.

Unsurprising really, given the shift from bread as a luxury item to bread as an everyday staple.

The guild of bread makers controlled and regulated the supply of grain into, out of, and throughout the Roman Empire, with the Collegium being one of the few to hold its own seat in the Senate.

Resist the Opson

Ancient Greece was big on bread too, but leavened wheat bread was a treat reserved for feast days. The rest of the time, sitos was the staple food that made up every meal – and sitos was a type of unleavened bread made of barley, grains, beans or pulses. Opson, meaning ‘relish’ was whatever complimented the sitos. Think meat, fish or cheese – but mostly fish, for the Greeks. They were obsessed with fish. Those who gorged on too much fish with their bread were called opsophagos, and said to be suffering from opsophagia. Today, we see these poor opsophagos lingering around the sushi counter at many a Friday brunch.

So the average Greek lived on a diet of unleavened bread (which morphed into today’s pita) and fish, it seems. In my mind, the Greeks probably accidentally invented the first tuna melt.

Like the Romans, the Greeks considered wheat bread the best, and varieties of wheat bread mixed with fruit or nuts were a true sign of wealth. And perhaps still are, especially if you look at the price of speciality bread in Spinneys.

Because a certain level of sophisticated infrastructure (fields, farms, production, mills, ovens, delivery) was needed for large-scale sitos/bread production, the “milled life” came to mean “civilised order” in Greek.

The Khubz buzz

Here in the Middle East, other recognisable baked goods were establishing themselves. While pita is a term loaned by the Greeks, the breads produced by the Arabic world in ancient times are still recognisable today. Khubz, ‘ordinary bread’, was a very slightly leavened, flat, white bread, usually baked in a ‘tannur’ (think Tandoor) oven.

The universality of pita-style bread in this region today shows how important this baking tradition is. Without your basic khubz, there would be no shawarma, no felafel wrap, nothing to scoop biryani or hummous with, or soak up the meat juices from a shish taouk. Who wants to imagine that world?

Earl-y rumours are not true

With legendary English arrogance, the modern day sandwich is allegedly called so after an event in 1762. The 4th Earl of Sandwich, John Montagu, hungry while playing cards, asked his staff to bring meat between two slices of bread.

Further study reveals he apparently had quite a gambling problem, and the bread and meat combo took his name because he ate so many of them, so often, too fixated on his hand of cards to move.

Now, call this writer cynical, but are historians trying to tell me that until that year, nobody had thought to put food between sliced bread? Combining peanut butter and jam, I can understand that being a relatively late discovery, or putting pineapple and ham on a pizza, fine, (although this should be made illegal, of course), but putting an ingredient or two between two slices of bread? Ancient history, surely?

It’s such a good idea it must be up there with the invention of fire, the wheel, and er…sliced bread.

Did you know?
In the English Middle Ages, civil war and natural disasters decimated the wheat harvest.

No wheat meant no bread, which lead to suffering, especially among the poor. King John fixed the price and weight of a loaf of bread to keep it affordable to all, and stop corruption.

Bakers faced heavy fines and even prison if they sold bread that was underweight.

To protect themselves, bakers decided if a customer wanted to buy twelve loaves of bread, they would give them an extra loaf just in case, giving customers thirteen loaves.

This is why a “Baker’s Dozen” is thirteen, not twelve.

Just not cricket

As embarrassing as the claim to have invented the sandwich, the English are also responsible for some abominations between bread. Cricket is as ingrained in the collective English mindset as the Queen, the bulldog and rain, yet there is a dark side to the gentle game: cucumber sandwiches.

Growing up in the English countryside, it was common to serve cucumber sandwiches to cricket players at lunch or tea time. These sandwiches feature plain white bread, a scant spread of butter, and the thinnest, thinnest slices of cucumber imaginable. The more translucent the better. No one knows why, but the more thin the cucumber slice, the more sophisticated the server.

For extra kudos in English parochial society, it was normally considered the height of bourgeois success to cut off the bread crusts. So you are serving these poor hungry fellows a limp cube of bread filled with a tiny millimetre thick slice of vegetable that’s 96 per cent water.

It actually makes me proud that in light of this – despite this – England’s cricketing prowess is something to be proud of.

Just another po’boy done good

America. Land of massive food, and the humble sandwich hasn’t been excluded from the obsession with supersizing. Despite not wanting to refer to the sandwich as the sandwich in the early days, because of its English connections and connotations, the word still crept into common US parlance.

Did you know?
That iconic New Orleans sandwich, the Po’ Boy, came about in the Great Depression during a streetcar worker’s strike. Two brothers, once streetcar operators themselves, owned a sandwich shop, and promised to feed any hungry striking worker for free. When a hungry striker walked into the shop, the clerks would yell, “Here comes another po’ boy,” (poor boy) and the name stuck.

Sandwiches became a place for a multitude of fillings, for exotic combinations, for tastes as diverse and wild as the Stateside population itself.

Even the names give hints of global influences – the Rueben, the Po’boy, the Tri Tip El Toro…and let’s not forget, the ultimate US sandwiches, the hotdog and the burger.

Americans eat more than 300 million sandwiches every day.

Today, each geographical area of the US proudly boasts its own mega-sandwich, from the chicken Conquistador in the south, to the Great Lakes’ Slow’s Yardbird, they all compete for a place in the sandwich hall of fame.

A truly belly-busting burger!

The “Beer Barrel Belly Buster”, pictured left,  at Denny’s Beer Barrel in Pennsylvania weighs in at 6.8kgs (15 pounds, or the average weight of a 4-5 month old baby). It is topped with cheese, tomatoes, onions, sweet relish, banana peppers, mayo, ketchup, mustard and lettuce.

Make it warm for you, sir?

Dubai, of course, isn’t afraid of oversized foods, and isn’t far behind the Belly Buster described above with some crazy offerings.

Visit a petrol station hungry, and chances are you’ll come across some of the world’s worst sandwiches. Almost as bad as those cricket cucumber sandwiches. Half a slice of processed cheese in bread that could be used to wipe dishes with is classed as normal here. Falafel sandwiches that crumble to dust like an ancient horror film witch as you try and take a bite are also a treat. Top these with the offer to microwave your limp lettuce and egg sandwich, and you can see the dark side of the emirates’ sandwich business.

So it’s with great relief that we are seeing some truly wonderful sandwich makers come to Dubai. Locally-grown group Bull & Roo brings creative sandwiches with its brands – Tom&Serg, The Sum of Us, Common Grounds. Tom&Serg’s current menu includes a Hawaiian poke burrito, and a prawn shaka sub.

Sarabeth's Dubai

That Sarabeth’s salmon sandwich, in loving detail

Relative newcomer Sarabeth’s – a legendary name in New York – recently opened in City Walk, bringing good quality bread and sandwiches to the city-state. Try the smoked salmon on seven-grain bread for a sublime, mouth-watering treat. Served with egg mustard, cucumber and a hint of caper, this is deep joy on slate, with a generous heap of perfect truffle parmesan fries.

The Burg Khalifa is perhaps an ironic nod to the excesses our fair city is renowned for. This AED230 towering burger comprises no less than five wagyu burgers, truffle cheese, seared foie gras, saffron mayonnaise and blackberry ketchup, all precariously positioned inside a 24-carat gold leaf bun.

Sadly for the opsophagos among us, this piece of art was only available during a food truck festival in February, and brought to Dubai by UK-based food truckers, The Roadery.

Where next for the humble sandwich? Let’s hope, whatever cunning food designers decide to throw at our ever-keen mouths, that the shawarma, felafel sandwich and that most humble of roadside ‘sandwich’, a ragag with everything, are here to stay.

 

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