Saturday, July 08, 2006

Le Sandwich


Today, we celebrated Amelie Mauresmo’s winning of the Wimbledon 2006 Ladies’ Championship title . . . with a most excellent sandwich. I suppose I should admit that we would have used the same sandwich to commiserate her loss: I have been planning this sandwich for a while now. When still living in Vermont, I was overtaken one summer afternoon by a French ham sandwich in a small café in Norwich. The taste of this sandwich has stayed with me over the years and I vowed to try and reproduce it. The arresting loveliness of the sandwich was due in part to my realization that it had been ages since I had tasted anything other than smoked ham. This ham was delicate, tender and very, very pink. Lightly cured, instead of chest-beatingly smoked, it nestled in its baguette in a sort of unnervingly pubescent, French kind of way. But it was not alone – pas du tout! It was accompanied by the most heavenly of butters which flung open the patio doors of my imagination. I have made herb butters in my time, even fig and tomato butters, but this (good, French) butter was mixed with aged Asiago cheese, garlic . . . and finely chopped almonds. It was a revelation.

If my reassembly of this revelation was to be anything other than Frankenstinian, I needed to track down all the perfect parts. That luscious cured pink ham with the white fat. A bread of sufficient nobility. An Asiago to match. And so Time Passed. I caught a glimpse of my dream sandwich in the ham that a friend brought me from a Polish delicatessen in North Philadelphia. As I enjoyed it with other superb Polish fare like white country cheese and beetroot horseradish, I quietly plotted to restock, smuggle it into my sandwich and pass it off as jambon. But still there was the question of the bread. Although the original sandwich had been on a baguette, I felt that a rustic white loaf with large holes and a robust crust would do just as well, perhaps even better. The story of my apprenticeship to the craft of sourdough breads will be told later, but suffice it to say that for the last 10 months I have been baking breads from a sourdough starter (a starter which I have named Mother), and they have begun to be presentable. I do not mean sourdough in the good-grief-that’s-tangy kind of way. I mean bread that doesn’t immediately strike you as a sourdough, but holds sacks of flavour in the chew – an alluring bread. I have been making bread with these ambitions, rising the loaves in willow baskets that give them floury spiral tracks on their dark crusts.

Then the other day I was buying cheese from the excellent cheese people in the Reading Terminal Market when I spotted in their cases BOTH a good-looking Asiago AND something they called “jambon Francais.” Due to bake two loaves later that afternoon, I breathlessly ordered the ham and the cheese and raced home to the dual delights of sandwiches and tennis. Now do not mistake me: I have maybe never raised a tennis racket, let alone served and volleyed in my life. My addiction to Wimbledon is two-fold, but has nothing to do with any actual relation to the sport of tennis. First, I was born in Wimbledon, at St Theresa’s Maternity Hospital, so I feel I have some peculiar rights to the sod of that genteel London suburb (this despite the fact we didn’t live there and directly after birth I was whisked away to grow up in the less salubrious suburb of Orpington - famed only for its chickens and active nudist colony). Second, the two weeks of Wimbledon fell right after the yearly batch of exams at secondary school: and watching the tournament on television was my reward - me on my tummy, the biscuit tin within arm’s reach. I have watched the tournament every year ever since. This year has been particularly exciting because of Amelie’s shot at the title. Not only is she a ripping girl herself, but it's been 81 years since a Frenchwoman won Wimbledon, and the sports programs showed charming footage of that French flapper girl jete-ing towards the net, all orange-blossom and wooden racquets. This year was an appropriate year for le sandwich.

In my fridge I discovered I still had a tangle of garlic scapes left over from my farm share. I had been tossing diced scapes in all sorts of things all week, and it struck me that they would be even more perfect than regular old adult garlic in the butter. Not only do they have a fresh, light garlic taste, but I fancied having their specks of green in the palette. Alors, en avant! I toasted about half a cup of almonds in my skillet and let them cool. Then I ground them medium-fine – enough to tame the crunch, but not so much as to render them marzipan. Then into the food processor went about 4oz of soft butter, a handful of chopped garlic scapes and a chunk of finely grated Asiago. A couple of pulses later, a taste, an adjustment for salt, and my butter was ready.


We tried the sandwich two ways: open, with just butter and ham, and then closed, with a leaf of lettuce. Both gained high scores, the winner with a line call being the one with the lettuce. I half wished I’d picked up a butter lettuce, or better still, some black seeded simpson – but I should be patient to perfect le sandwich. After all, if Amelie Mauresmo cellared a 1937 Chateau d’Yquem for seven years, waiting for her first Grand Slam title, I can potter about looking for the right little lettuce.


6 Comments:

Blogger goodyoneshoe said...

Finally someone gets it right about sandwiches. In addition to getting this particular sandwich right. My only quibble is that I'm reading this in a place where I have no hope (jamais!) of getting a) jambon francais, b) garlic scapes, c) bread anywhere as lusciously approximating pain Poilane as Syllabub's "mother"lode thereof. But the vicarious experience was more than lovely, maybe because I'm still in a post-Mauresmo victory glow.

1:07 am  
Blogger Darx said...

Ah, such a great story about your perfect sandwich. My perfect sandwich is also of French origins, being a delicious brie, basil, tomato (and mustard?) combo on croissant served at Cafe Elysa, a French coffee/pastry shop in Carlsbad, CA, when we were in town for a wedding in 2003. I still remember the perfectness of that sandwich, best I have ever eaten. The basil leaf was enormous, like the ear of a bassett hound. Thank you for sharing your delicious words!

2:03 pm  
Anonymous jri said...

That type of loaf is available at the NC Farmer's market in Raleigh. It is fantastic.

9:41 am  
Blogger GWPDA said...

Ah, you're about to be Atriosed....

Lovely words, lovely food. But do be careful with those anchos - they will repay caution.

9:52 am  
Anonymous Thomas Coppin said...

The wonders of the internet amaze me. I was searching for an address of St. Teresa's Hospital where our youngest was born in 1977 and came upon your wonderful blog on food. Your blog and pictures held me captive for some time. For two years we lived close enough to hear the roar of the crowds at Wimbledon.

11:51 am  
Blogger ms-marzipan said...

a college pal referred me to your blog last week, and have just now started at the beginning, but already impressed. as a pesco-veg., my fav. sandwich has salmon, carmelized onions, & pesto sauce-- but as you remark, good bread can be hard to find on this continent. Thanks for the ideas-- who would have thought to put almonds on a sandwich?!

3:38 pm  

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