When discussing where the sandwich came from, one must address the most widely known fact regarding the invention of the sandwich straight away. The modern sandwich is named after John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich. The circumstances of this are still hotly debated today, however.
The most widely known rumour regarding how Montagu invented the sandwich was perpetuated by Pierre Jean Grosely in a travel guide of the time – the mid-18th Century – who stated Montagu invented it while at the gambling table.
It was said that he refused to leave the table to have dinner and so the servants took to bringing him chunks of meat between slices of bread. Due to being the Earl of Sandwich, fellow players would ask for “the same as Sandwich”. Thereafter, his name became forever linked to this concept.
A biographer of Sandwich would later say that it was more likely he consumed this ‘invention’ at his desk as Montagu had numerous commitments to the Navy, politics and the arts which kept him hugely occupied.
While it is agreed that this modern concept is correctly attributed to John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, the use of some form of bread/bread like substance to lie under some other food, or to be used as a scoop or a ‘wrap’ can certainly be found in older cultures than mid-18th Century England.
There are contemporary reports of a Jewish sage, around 10 CE, who is said to have wrapped lamb with herbs between two pieces of ‘matzah’ – a flat and rough bread – during the Passover festival. In fact, throughout West Asia the use of flat breads have long been used to scoop or help small amounts of food to reach the mouth. The bread is normally baked in flat rounds which is in stark contrast to the loaf which we associate with Europe but also, with the conventional sandwich.
In Europe also there are traces of an earlier form of a ‘sandwich’. In the Middle Ages, roughly cut slabs of harsh bread were used as plates. Once the meal had been eaten, these ‘plates’, with food soaked into them, were then fed to the poor.
Moving nearer to the commonly held time of invention, in 17th Century Netherlands open sandwiches were quite commonplace in taverns, with slices of beef lying on buttered bread slices.
As Europe entered the industrial age and more and more people found themselves needing portable, inexpensive meals – which could be made quickly – in order to allow them to work more, the sandwich gained new found popularity.
While in the 19th Century the sandwich was a frequent staple of the working class diet it would not be until the early 20th Century that the Americans caught onto this food trend. As bread became more available and it became a staple of diets, the sandwich finally found global fame in the USA as well as Europe.
Now the humble sandwich is a true icon of British cuisine and it even has its own industry multi-billion pound. The British sandwich market alone is worth approximately £2.8billion.
Last year, around 1.7bn sandwiches were sold ‘on the go’ and retailers across the land are fighting to increase market share in this lucrative trade. Arguably the sandwich has been at the forefront of the retailers’ move into a sector which is now known as ‘convenience’.
It cannot have escaped many readers that the food retailers in the FMCG marketplace are opening more and more ‘smaller’ stores in more convenient locations. Up and down streets in cities, towns and villages these stores are opening and holding the best-selling product lines, in order to tap into the consumer demand for having things at their fingertips.
Whatever your view on pre-packed sandwiches it is a huge market and you would struggle to find someone who hasn’t ever eaten one. Of course, it is not just the food retailers who had latched onto our insatiable appetite for sandwiches.
Coffee shops, for a long time, only offered, well, coffee. Now you can pick up any number of beverages but also choose a sandwich to accompany it. While some may turn their nose up at pre-packed, supermarket bought sandwiches and instead eat in one of these well-known coffee shops, it should surprise no-one that the same manufacturers supply both.
If John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, could see his ‘invention’ now he would scarcely be able to believe his eyes. From its humble beginnings it is a now staple food for millions across the globe. If only he had put a patent on it…