In Praise of the Cheese Sandwich

There’s no doubt about it, the cheese sandwich is one of the world’s great inventions bar none. What did we learn from putting a man on the moon, or building the Great Wall of China? Not much. The cheese sandwich, on the other hand, is the sublime pinnacle of human endeavour. Firstly, it’s hunger-busting power reigns supreme, as does its ease of production, the rapidity of assembling one — and the almost infinite varieties, textures and flavours are enough to exhaust even the ficklest mind.

Perhaps, such a marvel could only have been invented in Great Britain, the home of the great bread sandwich, and still the nation’s popular lunchtime meal deal choice. As the famous British expressions go, ‘have your cheese sandwich and eat it’, and ‘Every man is his own cheese sandwich’, cough, or something along those lines—the question is not its national significance but what kind of cheese sandwich should we be eating? The truth is that anything goes so long as it’s cheese. And my definition of the cheese sandwich — strictly speaking — ought to be sliced bread and not a French stick, or a bagel. But hey, we have aircraft carriers without aeroplanes so definitions are meant to be stretched.

Everyone has a novel within them, or perhaps a bad novel in them, but — more importantly — each one of us has a favourite cheese sandwich recipe. The beauty of this realisation is that our favourite cheese sandwich recipe is always amazing. Of course, as time changes we also change — the cosmos is fluid, and natural entropy will occur — and our cheese sandwich cravings will evolve.

At university, I was introduced to the cheese sandwich made with soft white sliced bread, and slivers of Red Leicester. I’d never heard of or seen such a strange ‘orange’ cheese before. But, nonetheless, in spite of my Continental leanings, fluffy, white sliced bread with slivers of Red Leicester or mild Cheddar became my de facto cheese sarnie — the cheese standard you could say. But, like every tragic hero, I wanted more. Nothing could hold me back. Soon I’d ventured into previously unexplored cheese sandwich making territory, mixing and matching cheddar with Branston pickle, or Hellman’s Mayonnaise, and garnishing it with English round lettuce, or thinly sliced tomato. Sometimes in those poverty-stricken days the humblest cheese sarnie would be zinged-up with tomato ketchup, HP Brown Sauce, or Marmite. Chip shop chips were padded out as chip and butty sarnies, which could always be upgraded with the addition of my all-time favourite curry sauce (which, thinking back, was totally katsu before I’d ever even heard of that) — and upgraded still further by a wedge of Cheddar. I was a late starter to the cheese sandwich phenomenon, but I was learning. What I lacked in culinary sophistication I more than made up for with an entirely flexible approach to ingredients.

But times changed and I moved on from the basic cheese sandwich, toasting the bread, and making forays into the world of (insert ‘heavenly harp’ audio clip) … the toasted sandwich with tomato, or onion. The toastie is probably an entirely different genre of food (and worthy of an article in itself). Then I meandered into a Francophile phase, French sticks sliced in half with President butter, Le Rustique Brie and President Camembert, perhaps with slices of raw onion, and occasionally I’d go up-market with Munster, Reblochon, or Époisses. Pickled gherkins have always been a favourite and one or two always go great alongside (but not in) a cheese sandwich. But, however dangerously I’d wondered from the path of the humble British Cheese Sandwich, I would return to the fold with the peculiarly multicultural British mature Cheddar cheese sandwich, on sliced white ‘toasting’ bread with loads of Pataks aubergine or lime pickle, or Geeta’s Mango Chutney. A curried cheese. There have been bread experiments too, excellent Polish village style brown bread, light ‘Danish’ bread (like eating air), decadent Brioche with nutty cheeses like Jarlsberg, pumpernickel, rye bread, and sourdough. I do have my limits though and draw the line at the cheese and jam sandwich. I refuse to contemplate the cheese and Nutella sandwich. Bacon and jam — fine — but cheese and Nutella? Really?

These days my cheese sandwich is likely to be untoasted white bread, President butter, a mature Organic Cheddar, Branston pickle, and English round lettuce. I’ve been known to have cheese, hummus and carrot sandwiches, and to mimic supermarket sandwiches: my version of the grated cheddar and diced tomato — please ensure that the filling is diced and never a mushy paste. It’s also nice with thinly diced onion instead of tomato. I think the key to a good cheese sandwich is fresh bread (if not then you can always toast it) — and simplicity. Perhaps it’s time for some nostalgia… how about one of those classic university Red Leicester sandwiches?