Tuesday, July 31, 2007

All about cucumbers.

Today, July 31st

Nathaniel Hawthorne, the American author, enjoyed the produce of his own garden on this day in 1843.

Monday July 31st. We had our first cucumber yesterday.

The cucumber is not the world’s most exciting food, is it? Cool and crisp and used for its texture rather than its flavour. Nothing to dislike, but nothing to travel across town for. Inoffensive perhaps is the best word.

One thing I have never quite been able to understand is the concept of cucumber sandwiches. The British writer Sir Compton MacKenzie probably summed it up best in his description of an English tea party as somewhere where “You are offered a piece of bread and butter that feels like a damp handkerchief and sometimes, when cucumber is added to it, like a wet one.” I have certainly never been able to understand why this wet handkerchief-like sandwich has come to represent an entire English class of the Edwardian era – a class that could have afforded whatever it wanted as a sandwich filling. Why not truffled grouse sandwiches? Or sandwiches made from ham from peach-fed single-sty piglets? Or plain old cheese and tomato?

I decided to look into the puzzle. I came across a fairly lame explanation that the development of hot-houses made them easier to grow, and they became a symbol of the class that could afford hot-houses. Are cucumbers so difficult to grow in England that Mr and Mrs Peasant couldn’t manage any in their gardens? I thought they were the garden-glut vegetable par excellence. Another theory is that being pale and delicate and light they symbolised the class which could eat for style rather than sustenance. If anyone else has any ideas I would love to know.

Cucumber sandwich recipes (or should that be instructions?) do not seem to exist in cookbooks of the era. The only one I could find was hardly classical, as I understand that ‘classical’ in respect of a cucumber sandwich means bread + butter + cucumber. Sir Compton MacKenzie would find the following sandwich, from the very elegant The Gentle Art of Cookery (1925) to be very ‘wet’ indeed.

Cucumber Salad Sandwich.
Mix sliced cucumber with mayonnaise and spread between bread.

This paucity of instructions for what was (is?) clearly a very important sandwich historically speaking surprised me, particularly as so many authors comment on how badly sandwiches are made. To give a couple of examples:

The ‘lady’ responsible for Murray's modern cookery book. Modern domestic cookery, (1851) says ‘Sandwiches require more care than is usually bestowed on them, for this reason, that every one believes he can cut sandwiches.’

The redoutable Cassell’s Dictionary of Cookery (1870s) says ‘Sandwiches, when properly prepared, constitute a convenient, elegant, and palatable dish for suppers or luncheons, but have fallen into bad repute on account of the manner in which they are often made’.

Future food historians and archeologists will be baffled, for although they are mentioned in books, cucumber sandwich remains do not last long in midden heaps.

In the meanwhile, my quest developed into a search for an interesting (dare I say exciting?) culinary use for cucumbers, as it seems negligent only giving you a one-line recipe for the day. I have been unable to find anything any more intriguing than the recipe for Cowcumbers, to Pickle in the likeness of Mangoes which featured in another story. I did find the following recipe however, and being a marmalade and jam lover and maker from way back it seemed interesting – if your neighbour has a glut of cucumbers and you have an insufficiency of lemons.

Cucumber and Lemon Jam.
3 lb. green cucumbers; 3 fresh lemons; 2 ½ lb sugar; 1 pint water.
Cleanse and slice cucumber thinly. It may be peeled or not as desired. Sprinkle lightly with salt and allow to remain for several hours, then drain off the water which the salt has drawn.
Meanwhile cut the lemons roughly and boil them in a covered pan for forty-five minutes. Strain the liquid into a preserving pan, add the cucumber (washed and drained) and cook for fifteen minutes, then add the sugar, and finish the cooking rapidly in an open pan. Usual time fifteen to twenty minutes after adding the sugar. If desired the cucumber may be cut in strips or blocks. Apple cucumber may be used instead of the green ones, but they should be used while the skin is white, and not after it becomes yellow.
[Australian Cookery of Today; Sun News-Pictorial; Prudence; 1930s]

On this Topic …

For exciting information on the EU regulations on cucumbers, go to this previous post.

Tomorrow’s Story …

A Fashionable Brunch.

Quotation for the Day ...

A cucumber should be well sliced and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out, as good for nothing. Samuel Johnson.

6 comments:

Jean said...

I like cucumber sandwiches - and even better, sandwiches in which cucumber accompanies something else, such as fish paste, or cream cheese. It is, as you surmise, all about the texture.

Also, since dry sandwiches are an abomination, the wetness does not come amiss. But pepper generously.

M said...

I'm sure Mrs. Beeton makes some mention in her tome but unfortunately it's not to hand.

A good cucumber sandwich should be made on thinly cut white or brown bread, lavishly buttered.

Peel your cucumber and slice as thinly as possible. Place the slices in a bowl and dress with a very few drops of vinegar.

Assemble the sandwiches as usual, two slices of bread with neatly arranged cucumber within, then trim the crusts off and divide into neat triangles for service.

The Old Foodie said...

Hello m. I cant find cuke sandwiches in Mrs B - at least not in her original version, which is online in a few places (Gutenberg has it). If you find your copy, with the sandwiches, let me know (and please post her instructions). Do you know what edition you have?

M said...

I have the original in facsimile so if you can't find it I misremembered. It's a bother being away from my books, I've an idea for the section of the bookshelf where I'd find the answer but no idea of the book I'd find there!

The recipe I gave I learnt at my father's knee. So it must be right! He also made another concoction that we loved as children although it sounds rather foul now which I think must have some roots in wartime austerity recipes. Called 'mock crab' it consisted of finely grated hard cheese (Cheddar I suppose or a Red Leicester perhaps for the colour) mashed with vinegar and pepper until a fairly fluffy paste resulted. This was used as a sandwich filling. Those were the days!

Anonymous said...

An English lady prepared thinly sliced cucumber with spread tinned salmon or tuna on sandwiches for an afternoon tea and all preent wanted to know how it was done. It was so simple and absolutely delicious for us staid old Ozzies. .

Kathleen Fisher said...

Cucumber sandwiches are delicious! I peel the cucumbers in stripes, slice thinly and arrange in layers in a colander, salting each layer. Leave for at least a couple of hours for the salt to draw out the moisture, rinse and dry on paper towel. Spread bread with butter or, my preference, cream cheese. Arrange overlapped slices of cucumber and sprinkle with freshly cracked pepper. Assemble, cut off crusts and cut each sandwich into three "fingers". A delicious high tea treat that my guests gobble down with champagne and tea!