Somewhere in a source long forgotten the Editor found culinary reference in a history of the 1940 battle for France. An RAF fighter goes down, its pilot survives and the Luftwaffe captures him near one of its forward airfields. It takes some time for transport to the Stalag and his temporary captors treat him well. They eat lunch together, tomato sandwiches and Champagne, this latter looted no doubt but a lovely gesture nonetheless. It sounded like a treat equally tempting for the early twenty-first century and it is. You will want the very best tomatoes you can find.
- good British-style bread; a cottage loaf in Britain, Pepperidge Farm hearty white or sourdough in the United States
- Champagne or, for straightened times, a decent Cava
- Chill the Champagne.
- Peel and core the tomatoes and slice them thickly. If they leach a lot of liquid get rid of it.
- Salt the tomato slices; let them sit for a few minutes to absorb it.
- Cut the crusts from the bread (you can make breadcrumbs of them) and smear each slice with as much or little mayonnaise as you like, but do use some.
- Make the sandwiches and cut each one in half on the diagonal.
- Serve the sandwiches with the Champagne.
-Do not be tempted to add a single ingredient or other food to this lunch except perhaps for a bracing pot of tea to follow.
-Quite obviously this is not much of a recipe but no matter: The simple lunch is so good when tomatoes are in season that its inclusion is mandatory.
-Michael Smith, an early advocate for the revival of English foodways, includes a recipe for tomato sandwiches in The Afternoon Tea Book (New York 1986). It is as minimalist as ours (butter not mayonnaise and a sprinkle of black or white pepper with the salt) so perhaps we ought not be self-conscious.
-Helen Simpson makes much the same thing as Smith in her London Ritz Book of Afternoon Tea (New York 1986), but prefers brown bread to white “because it looks so fine beside the rosy tomatoes.”
-Bee Wilson also includes a tomato sandwich ‘recipe,’ in the more recent Sandwich: A Global History (London 2010). Hers is the same as Smith--butter not mayonnaise--and she notes that you “might add a few basil leaves, or a sprinkling of celery salt before closing off with the second slice; it doesn’t need them; it has the perfect Enid Blyton charm just as it is.” (Wilson 114)
Her pretext for discussing so simple a thing? It “is a great luxury because it has to be made and eaten so fresh. You could never get a pre-made tomato ‘sand-wedge’ because the tomato juices would seep into the bread.” (Wilson 114)
-The heat of India not only inspired a love of spicy foods, but also a quest for refreshment among the British of the Raj and then at home. Acid therefore enhances acid in the tomato sandwich that Cecilia Peel favors in Indian Curries Soups and Sandwiches (London 1930). Along with the universal dusting of salt and pepper, she sprinkles her tomato with a little vinegar.
-The book itself is a bit of a tease; three-eighths of the text is not her own, but rather reproduces the chapter on curries from Colonel Kenney-Herbert’s iconic Culinary Jottings by ‘Wyvern’ (Madras 1891). Unlike most such borrowings, which routinely run to plagiarism, Mrs. Peel’s is open and respectful, even reverential:
“Wyvern’s admirably clear and simple directions have been unobtainable, as his book has been long out of print. Yet it supplies the need as no other has ever done. We have therefore reprinted it with the very slightest of alterations (for who would paint the lily or gild refined gold?), and it is here presented anew to the public.” (Peel iii)
So fair play to our Avenger.
-Her take on the tomato sandwich eschews our minimal method to suggest additions of grated cheese (deconstruction again), celery, cucumber, lettuce, ‘meat’ or nuts.
-Smith offers an interesting twist on cutting tomatoes:
“Now, here is where the mistake often happens. Most people slice them. I don’t. I quarter the tomatoes, remove the seeds, press the petals flat, and lay them on the slice of buttered bread.” (Tea 101)
-Smith explains that slices can ‘slither;’ not our experience though.
-Sticklers will want to make their own mayonnaise but we never bother because Hellman’s estimable product is available to all. If you are lucky enough to live in Nashville the legendary Duke’s mayonnaise is an option; in New Orleans, Blue Plate embodies a local legend as well.
-Simpson includes a good mayonnaise recipe in the Ritz Book. Its inclusion of “English mustard powder” (like Colman’s) and Worcestershire anglicizes the formula. Why not follow suit by whisking both ingredients into your stash from the jar? Or, if you are dedicated to the Old School and must make mayonnaise, her version a la Ritz is tough to beat. The recipe appears elsewhere in the practical.
-Speaking of the American south, a number of southern writers claim the tomato sandwich as uniquely their own, but based on the written record the British can co-claim origination rights.
-Pink Champagne works here too, also Chandon Blanc de Noir, the big California sparkler that comes in at just over $20. A bargain alternative? Barely carbonated “Il Colle” rosato vino frizzante from the Veneto, something like a pink variation on the Portuguese vinho verde. It should cost you less than $12.