The Edible Highway Code

All too often, sandwich makers’ efforts fall short of being great because they fail to follow essential rules in taste, texture, colour, construction and discovery. Here sandwich expert Nellie Nichols offers a valuable guide to creating a truly delicious product every time, a template she calls the Edible Highway Code.

I’m not going to teach my Grandmother to suck eggs. To start with neither of them have been here for a very long time, so it would be difficult to say the least. It’s an odd phrase which has been around since it was first recorded in 1707 in a translation by John Stevens of the collected comedies of the Spanish playwright Quevedo: “You would have me teach my Grandame to suck Eggs”.

The meaning is clear enough though: don’t give needless assistance or presume to offer advice to an expert. I must be very clear, this is not an attempt to do either. It goes without saying that you, the reader, have a vast knowledge of this sandwich business world we all live in and many of you have been in it far longer than I have. This article in no way underestimates this.

A few years ago I was asked by someone in the industry what I thought were the basics to making a truly great sandwich. If I were to put together a template of the most important criteria, what would it consist of? I gave this a lot of thought and came up with what I call the Edible Highway Code.

Cast your mind back to when you were beginning to drive and you learnt the Highway Code. The foundation of safety on the road, facts you depend on and should never forget. But how many of us ever look at that book again and refresh all that data? Go back to the very beginning and double check the detail? I suppose I put together the Edible Highway Code to do just that in sandwiches with a fresh pair of eyes, and I often use it as a refocus training programme with development teams who are looking to re-energise and re-vitalise the way they develop. So some of this may be of interest and well, if it isn’t, just turn over the page and get on with another more interesting article.

So here’s how to make a great sandwich, in my book anyway. If you follow this I don’t believe you can go wrong and really should end up with a truly delicious product. It falls into a few headings: Taste, Texture, Colour, Construction and Discovery.

Taste memories are very powerful. Favourite foods when we were children, a recipe here and there that someone we love made – licking the wooden spoon and scraping the bowl clean. I remember the jellies my mother made; a raspberry red rabbit (always made with fresh orange juice) sitting on green grass made of zesty lime green finely chopped jelly; on Fridays we always had the most delicious fish pie. I have never been able to replicate quite the same heady Herb Sauce made from Parsley and Dill, amongst other herbs from the garden, where they grew wildly together in a muddle of a bush.

Sweet, sour, bitter, pungent and salty, chargrilled, roasted, and smoked, – everyone of these or any ingredient with provenance has an important part to play in whatever recipe combination. But above all they must deliver in a sandwich. Use blindfolds and taste sandwiches on the market with flowery names and claims and see if unseen you can taste, name and identify thecontents. You may be surprised that it’s often completely impossible.

Develop taste and flavours and worry about what it’s going to be called later. It will end up being far more accurate and you won’t be cheating the customer. The more textures a sandwich has the better. They all go towards providing an enjoyable eat, interest and a surprise factor. There are few greater sandwich disappointments than a soft, squishy tuna sandwich, made with a tuna mix revolved at high speed within an inch of its life to the consistency of mulch.

Good textures in their right place can be tender, crunchy, crisp, smooth, dry, moist or fibrous to name a few. Over the last couple of years there has been a huge move to the addition of different seeds in breads such as poppy, which also gives a great visual. Figs give the same mouth feel. Add a sprinkle of toasted pine nuts, slices of red pepper, the smoothest silkiest cream cheese, the dry crumbliness of Cheshire…

Just like magpies, we are drawn to bright shiny colours and we eat with our eyes. Walk along a row of sandwiches, your eye will search for and bedrawn by colour. Yet so many of the sandwiches on the market today are soulless beiges and browns on pale or white breads with a slither of spinach or anaemic iceberg barely visible to the naked eye. A minimum of three colours (not counting the bread) will lift the sandwich into prime eye level.

No one likes a wet sandwich. No one wants decomposing leaf either, but again and again I see sandwiches with mayo on the top and bottom slice, tight and cosy next to lettuce and tomatoes. Then well before the end of its far too long life, theleaf becomes at one with the mayo and the poorly drained tomatoes are sliding and skating about as if on an ice rink.

Use thinly sliced salamis and dry cured meats that won’t fly out with the first bite, layer your cheese and blanket fold your meats for a fuller fatter look. Pack your sandwiches with handfuls of leaves so you will never hear the box rattle and shake.

And lastly, discovery. What is nicer than a few bites in to discover a new flavour, or texture in any dish – add a shake of cracked black pepper, a few rings of onion, a sprinkle of capers, a couple of fresh coriander leaves; make sure it’s an uneven and understated coverage – just enough to add a little something to the overall product.

So spread to the absolute edges because an awful lot of sandwich makers say they do and don’t, and never stop testing. Taste blindfolded. Never decide the recipe is right until you are honestly convinced it’s as good at the very last minute of its shelf-life as at the beginning when you first made it. Then, and only then, you will have a great sandwich.

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