Sunday, August 05, 2007

In Defence of Cucumber Sandwiches.

I am delighted that Rachel Laudan has agreed to allow me to post her response to my story about cucumber sandwiches a few days ago. Thanks Rachel!

Cucumber Sandwiches.
Your column set me thinking about cucumber sandwiches. When I was growing up in England we didn’t have them often. They were too much of a fiddle to make on a regular basis. They were a treat for a formal tea, really the British meal as you well know, for entertaining unless you were very wealthy. They were served only on warm summer days and there were precious few of those in England. And finally, they were really upgraded bread and butter in the sense that the quality of the bread and butter was all-important and the filling was just a delightful extra to offset the taste and texture of bread and butter.

I’ve been thinking about how my family made them and trying to reconstruct its logic. I’m sure neither my mother nor her friends would have been thought it necessary to explain all this.

To make them, we used a square loaf of fairly dense, high quality bread a couple of days old, not stale, but of a good consistency and a little dry. We had a good salty flavourful butter that had been allowed to soften, never mayonnaise. And above all, a razor-sharp carbon steel slicing knife, never one of those serrated jobbos that tear the bread.

My grandmother cut the crust off the loaf, then buttered the exposed area, and then cut a very thin slice. She repeated this until she had as many buttered slices as she needed. This was regarded by my other grandmother as a low class way of buttering bread (you have to love the English). But the bread did not tear this way. The slices were laid out in neat rows on the table, buttered side up.

The butter protected the bread so that it did not get soggy. Since the sandwiches were always served in warm weather, it stayed unctuous and not soggy.

Meanwhile, the cucumbers were peeled and sliced thinly but not paper thin. You want a bit of crunch. We seasoned them lightly with a touch of vinegar. We often used the much-derided malt vinegar, good in these circumstances just because it is concentrated and you don’t want the cucumbers wet. A touch of either finely chopped chives or finely chopped mint didn’t hurt either but their flavour should not dominate. The key rule was not to salt the cucumbers. Salted they turned flabby and the sandwiches too.

The cucumber, drained if there was any liquid, were placed on half the slices, and topped with the partner slice. The sandwiches were then stacked up in a loaf form and wrapped in a slightly damp tea towel until ready to serve.

Then, with the really sharp knife, my Mother sliced off the crusts, cutting down through the whole loaf. Then she cut the sandwiches into triangles or squares and arranged them on a plate.

Really fine.


Barbara said...

My English grandmother used butter and cut bread this way. I always admired the method as she managed to get a really thin slice.

Devi said...

Thank you for posting this recipe.
Will be using it at our picnic at
Stately Oaks Historical Society this week end. Will let everyone know it is yours.
Blessings of love,