If you are a Downton Abbey fan, you certainly remember…
Podcast: The history of the sandwich and English culture
On 6th April 2022 I talked about the history of the sandwich and the English culture on a Hungarian radio station, Klubrádió, in the programme Galaxis kalauz. The podcast is available here, however, as it’s in Hungarian, I decided to publish the content in a written format.
I have Gizella Petz, blogger of England’s Puzzle on the phone, good afternoon.
Good afternoon, Ági.
In your Blog, there is an older post about the history of the sandwich, in which you mentioned, the Sandwich Week. Let’s start with this, because whilst it may (or may not) be obvious that the sandwich was invented in England, the sandwich week probably the concept was not invented in England. So what is a sandwich week? Does the sandwich really have such a big cult in England?
The sandwich week will be held on the last week of May this year. It means that for a week the sandwich will be in focus, so those who make or sell sandwiches may come out with some new flavours and combinations.
There are some legends as to how the sandwich was invented but what does the Earl of Sandwich have to do with it? I understand you did some research.
Yes, I did indeed. The history of the sandwich can be tracked back to Lord Montague, 4th Earl of Sandwich. Sandwich is a small village in Kent near to Dover by the way. According to the legend, Lord Montagu loved playing cards and he did not want to have a break to eat, therefore he asked his servants to give him meat tucked between two slices of bread. In this way he “hit two birds with one stone”: he did not have to stop the game and his hands and cards stayed clean. Apparently there is not enough evidence this happened this way. It is more likely, that Lord Montagu, whilst working for the Admiralty, did not want to stop working at 4pm when the biggest meal of the day was served in the 18th century and asked for some meat between 2 slices of bread and that’s how the sandwich we know today, was born.
This is a more family-friendly version of the legend than playing cards late at night… As for the English culture, there’s a stereotype that they have so many rituals and routines in their lives such as the afternoon tea, which of course contains sandwich as well. However, not an everyday type of sandwich that you would just take out of your fridge, but the classic cucumber sandwich. To be honest, I think I’d prefer cakes. It’s also interesting why the cucumber sandwich became fashionable and a tradition. Today cucumber doesn’t appear to be special at all.
No, cucumber is no longer special today indeed. Although cucumber appeared in England in the 14th century, it did not go down well and it took another 250 years to rediscover this vegetable. Quite why they used cucumber for the sandwiches I haven’t managed to find out yet. My assumption is that the cucumber became popular in the Victorian era, because that was the time when everything which came from India, China or the Middle East was loved. Later, during the Edwardian era, it was easier to heat greenhouses to grow cucumbers, as a result many could afford cucumbers. Incidentally, afternoon tea doesn’t only contain cucumber sandwiches but as you said, cakes as well! Afternoon tea is still one of the most popular traditions that survive in England, often and families, couples often have afternoon teas. It’s still very fashionable and loved: the tiered cake stand contains cucumber sandwiches, cakes and cream tea – the latter not sure how translates in Hungarian. This contains scones, a sweet bun, cream and jam. The whole experience is rich, but you’d better be careful. Although the portions are small, by the time you eat the sandwiches and the different cakes, you might be full.
I was amused by your blogpost when I read that the cucumber was not highly regarded and was said to “fit only for consumption by cows, hence the name “cow-cumber”. How weird it must have been for the working class who would have loved to have sandwich with meat to see the aristocracy eat thinly sliced cucumber sandwiches.
Absolutely, however I think what’s behind is that perhaps the aristocracy could afford to eat less nutritious food, lighter sandwiches, as they had dinner later which was always filling, whilst the working class had to eat filling meals all the time and they would have preferred a sandwich filled with meat. Obviously, not all of them could afford meat, whilst the aristocracy didn’t necessarily burn off the energy they had taken in, the working class did.
You wrote many interesting things about the sandwich in your post, also things that are partially related to the English culture, but also things that are very English. When you explained the different variants and flavours of the most popular sandwiches, you mentioned one particular sandwich which was created for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. It surprised me but on the other hand it didn’t.
Yes, this is the so called coronation chicken, which was first prepared for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. It’s has a delicious filling with chicken pieces and a creme with curry powder, mango and raisins. It’s lovely, however, not my favourite as I don’t like raisins, but it’s difficult to avoid in this country as almost everything contains raisins.
Do you have a favourite sandwich by the way? You did mention in your post that you don’t often eat sandwiches – we will come back to that in a while. But living in England and researching English culture, have you adopted English traditions as far as your diet is concerned? Also, the sandwich being that popular, does that mean that eating cold meals everyday is normal?
Yes, it is normal, many people only have a sandwich for lunch and have their main cooked meal in the evening. To eat healthier, in Hungary we already started to have our main meals at lunch and we normally have something light in the evening. In England however, this hasn’t changed much yet. I haven’t switched to eating sandwiches for lunch! It can happen from time to time, but it’s rare. However, I did adopt some English traditional meals such as the “bacon butty”. This is a bread roll with butter and fried bacon served with either ketchup or HP or brown sauce. This is typically a breakfast meal and is very tasty with a nice cup of tea. I like it because it’s served hot.
You start to think how different sandwiches can be. The sandwiches of the 1980s spring to mind which were popular during house parties in Hungary. They were topped with sausage slices and a spicy paprika cream called “red gold cream” – we might have drawn eyes and a smile for the sandwich with the cream. Have you explained over there how a Hungarian sandwich looks like?
Yes, I told stories about the famous Hungarian retro sandwich which is still my favourite. I remember, we would have them at birthday parties and on new Years Eve. We used baguettes for open sandwiches which were dressed with ham or salami, some grated cheese, a slice of gherkin and a slice of hard boiled egg with a spot of piros arany (a spicy paprika cream) in the middle. I believe every country have their own specialities and special sandwiches. In Hungary we have our vintage or retro sandwich, in England there are many different ones.
As for the pastries, you mentioned an interesting combination which involves a croissant. It’s quite surprising. Would you please share what this is?
Yes, the latest version from America is the so called “croll” which is a hybrid of croissant and roll.
You also mentioned that buying pre-packed sandwiches from vending machines is normal today. But pre-packed or ready made food let’s say 50, 80 or 100 years ago wasn’t normal and was an attraction.
Absolutely. This also happened when Marks & Spencers launched their first pre-packed sandwich in 1980. Everybody thought it was a crazy idea but Marks and Spencer got it right: the pre-packed sandwich was successful so much as it has become a huge business since. It is an £8 billion business in the UK alone. This is an incredible amount. Another interesting fact: in the 1850s, 436 thousand sandwiches were sold in London in a year. Today, Sainsbury’s which has only 4% of the food-to-go market sells this amount within a few hours.
Your blog is called England’s Puzzle. Having lived abroad for years, could you please elaborate why you used England and English and not Britain and British?
British is rather a political term, whilst English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish are nations. These nations build both Great Britain and the United Kingdom. Because I live in England and mainly visit places in England, I research the English culture the most. Of course you can debate when and whether we are talking about English or British culture. It depends. You have to be careful which to use when. But like I said, I live in England, that is why I used the word England when I chose my blog’s name.
On top of this, you travel a lot and you also do tour guiding in the UK. How much do you get involved with English culture when you are guiding? I mean, do you prepare and how much do you focus on gastronomy, tourism and history? I would think, as you learn a lot about the culture, you can share a lot.
I enjoy researching the history of everything whether it’s culture, gastronomy or architecture, it doesn’t matter. Wherever I take guests, I always prepare myself and map things. I like sharing everything I know focusing on interesting facts.
What captured your heart in England? Looking back after such a long time, did you have a fairy-tale-like England with its Victorian heritage, meaning traditional afternoon teas we have just mentioned etc in your mind or was there something that was totally different and shocked you? Or, did you just go there open-minded and said, alright let’s have a look at England and find out what this country and its culture is like?
Yes, I did have an idea about England. I grew up watching old Sherlock Holmes films and I fell in love with the scenery and culture instantly. Later series like Poirot and You rang M’ylord? enhanced this affection. Although I had been to England on business before I relocated, I only started to visit places in the countryside since I’ve been living in this country. I must say, England preserved its fairy-tale like ambience which is pretty amazing, especially in countryside villages. Of course there are modern elements in rural villages too, but the ambience is still the same. I mean there are surfaced roads etc obviously but the ambiance is there, as well as traditions, they are both alive.
There are many photos on your blog which are taken by you. One would think scenes like these only exists on postcards – cottages that we see in romantic films. But you’re saying, that exists.
Oh absolutely! Although many towns were bombed and destroyed during the Second World War, luckily the countryside could preserve their heritage and buildings. At this point we have to mention one more important thing, namely that since William the Conqueror, in 1066, no enemies put their feet on British land. This helped massively to preserve cottages, architecture and charming villages.
Gizella Pez, the blogger of England’s Puzzle has been my guest in the last few minutes and we talked about English culture and the history of the sandwich. Thank you for sharing all these with us.
My pleasure and thank you for the opportunity.
If you’d like to explore England, please check out my guided day trips and get in touch!
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