Sandwiches Gastronomiques

Maison Blanc, well known for its fantastic breads, croissants and pastries, is about to open a new sandwich concept – Maison Vite. Food consultant Nellie Nichols paid a call to their recently opened café in London to check out the form.

From what I can gather I think we won the 2012 Bid fair and square. I’m ignoring all that nonsense talk that we didn’t. But even worse than the suggestion of cheating was that British food took a bit of a knocking – what was that about? Then it got me thinking about French sandwiches on the British high street. Should they even be here and are they any good?

Maison Blanc was founded in 1979 by Raymond and Jenny Blanc to produce French breads for their restaurant near Oxford. Using imported French flours they guaranteed authentic flavours, textures and quality and expanded to include viennoiserie, savouries and, famously, patisserie.

The first traditional Boulangerie – Patisserie – Chocolaterie was opened in Oxford where it continues to thrive today. Over the ensuing twenty five years, Maison Blanc has become truly famous for its incredible selection of breads, croissants and pastries.

The traditional baguettes are left to ferment slowly for a characteristic slightly sour flavour. Yeast free Pain au Levain is made with delicious dark rye flour. When yeast is used it is leaven, a naturally occurring non-commercial bakers yeast.

The Campaillou remains their best seller. A mild sour dough loaf made with wheat, malt and rye leaven, it has a wonderful crisp crust and makes the best toast. Thirteen further shops have followed in Central London and the South East. In the autumn it will be opening a new sandwich concept, Maison Vite in Piccadilly and Fenchurch Street. This promises to have an extensive range of sandwiches and other products geared exclusively for the lunchtime market.

The latest outlet to open is a café in Putney which not only sells the total range of breads, but also a large selection of cakes, savouries, pastries, sandwiches and salads. The coffee is delicious, especially with a freshly baked croissant or pain au chocolat to dip into it and the café opens at the back into a little garden. This is clearly a popular spot for a rest from a busy Saturday of errands with a newspaper. The summer collection of tarts are worth making a big detour for, especially the Apricot with Rosemary, a sweet dough tart with a rosemary scented almond crème and apricot halves which are slightly caramelised during the baking process. This is one to take home with you.

Their Brochette de Pain is a very innovative skewer of six doll size miniature assorted tiny baby breads, ideal with any salad or soup. The naughtiest bread of all however is the Pain aux Fromages, which is a flatbread made with Cheddar, Emmental and Goats Cheese – filled with some ham and salad leaves this would make a truly delicious sandwich.

There is only one salad to try in a French establishment, the Tuna Nicoise. Now if they can’t get that one right it would be worth telling everyone. This packaging is clever with a snap off dressing compartment for easy pouring. The salad is so fresh it has the bounciest and springiest of

PROFILE 11 leaves, firm juicy tomato wedges covered in tiny baby capers. The green French olives have the best flavour, but the star of the salad is the egg, cut into big segments, the yolk is bright yellow with just the runniest of middles and lots of black pepper. The sandwich range is compact but at the same time manages to offer all the classic French favourite ingredients and combinations and so choosing isn’t easy. However, the product names are oddly geographical which doesn’t help anyone, unless proficient in French ingredient origination – for example the Normand, £3.10, (as in Normandy, so as in apples, therefore this recipe contains apple and cider confit) – comes with thick slabs of brie and mixed leaves in a Pain Rustique and makes you feel to totally enjoy these flavours you’d be best imagining sitting in a French corn field with your picnic on a red and white checked cloth.

The Montagnard, £2.95, (as in ‘from the mountain’, so think skipping goats) contains goat’s cheese with roasted aubergine and pepper pesto with spinach leaves on a traditional very crunchy baguette. It’s hard to say which of these two is better they’re both so good. The Pyreneen, £2.95 (different mountains, wild pigs?) is filled with a robust pork and tarragon pate, lots of generous pieces of pickled dill cucumber and mixed leaves – again the crispiest of loaves. The Bressan, £3.20 (as in Bresse in France where those wonderful chicken come from that have red combs, white feathers and blue feet with four toes) is made with chicken breast, sunblush tomatoes and rocket leaves.

The list goes on but the two Croque- Monsieurs, £3.50 each, need a special mention. First appearing in Paris in 1910 the Croque (meaning to crunch or munch) is as we know it made with good lightly smoked ham, béchamel sauce and emmental cheese.

This is an excellent example of how it really should be made but the vegetarian version with spinach and goats cheese in place of the ham, for me nearly takes the place of the classic forever. Both these and many other savouries, are well worth tasting if you are looking to develop good simple hot food options on your menu. They reheat fast and keep hot for a remarkable amount of time, staying crisp and full of flavour and, because of the layer of Bechamel, don’t dry out. This is one of those places that because it’s a small chain is not hugely well known. But like any good small local restaurant that you go to because the food is so delicious, tucked away in a back street, those that know how good it is go there all the time. On a quality level it may well have a lot to teach some of the bigger players, and, I have to admit, perhaps those French have a few things to teach us Brits about making sandwiches. Please go and see what you think.

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