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London Diary

Sandwich on top of a grave

Print edition : Jun 22, 2022 T+T-

Sandwich on top of a grave

An attendee wearing a British Union flag hat arranges sandwiches at the Big Lunch street party on the Long Walk near Windsor castle during Platinum Jubilee celebrations in Windsor, UK, on June 5, 2022.

An attendee wearing a British Union flag hat arranges sandwiches at the Big Lunch street party on the Long Walk near Windsor castle during Platinum Jubilee celebrations in Windsor, UK, on June 5, 2022. | Photo Credit: Hollie Adams / Bloomberg

One of the first things you see when you step out of London’s airports is a coffee shop, usually a branch of Costa and a branch of M&S Food. This being 2022, the platinumth year of our lady Queen Elizabeth the Second, most visitors to the UK know exactly how to navigate a Costa Coffee. They approach the cafe gingerly, note the prices, convert the prices into their home currency, wince so severely that you can actually hear their facial muscles squeaking, before joining the line and succumbing to the global capitalist cappuccino machine. One hazelnut soya latte please.

All this is fine. Predictable, even. But then there are the truly courageous visitors who decide they will not go to Costa. Instead they will go to M&S Food. And immediately they are overcome by... sandwich. Which makes it sound like some kind of national malady that strikes unvaccinated visitors.

Which is exactly what it is. And what a sweet malady it is. They will see dozens upon dozens of sandwiches. In all kinds of combinations. I once saw an Italian family enter an M&S Food at Heathrow, look at the choices, look at each other, sigh and then walk off to the Costa. The spread was so anxiety-inducing it made an Italian family voluntarily go to a Costa Coffee. Will they ever be allowed back into Italy? Sad.

A view of a Costa Coffee shop.
A view of a Costa Coffee shop. | Photo Credit: RUI VIEIRA / AP

When I pass through Heathrow when travelling or to receive visitors, I always drop in at M&S Food. I make sure to get a to-go pack for the flight or the train home. Maybe a bowl of fresh coconut. Or a smoothie. But most often: a sandwich. I love sandwiches. Always have. I like them in all shapes and sizes: brown, white, granary, bloomer, sourdough, panini, baguette, rye, muffin, wrap, focaccia, pita, gyro, banh mi, dabeli... really, I don’t care. If it is a sandwich, I will almost certainly eat it.

And if you are a sandwich person, there are few places in the world that truly appreciate a good sandwich quite like the UK does. Here sandwiches are everywhere. Airports, train stations, schools, churches, museums, castles, aquariums, cemeteries. If you go to the superb Cafe in the Crypt beneath St Martin-in-the-Fields by Trafalgar Square, you can quite literally eat a sandwich on top of someone’s grave. It is allowed. (Also do look at the church itself. It is the model for many British-built churches across North India.)

It is not just that the sandwich is ubiquitous in the UK. It’s also the variety. And I mean that across both axes: diversity and quality. You will often find the most hideous sandwiches sitting a stone’s throw from some of the greatest expressions of “things between bread” on the planet. Such as Jeremy Lee’s Smoked Eel sandwich.

The really quite adorable Jeremy Lee owns and runs Quo Vadis, an acclaimed private club with a public restaurant on Dean Street in Soho. Many, many years ago, the location used to be a set of extremely miserable lodgings. Karl Marx lived there once. Today it is home to a very tony private club and a very aesthetically pleasing restaurant. Once I saw Garry Kasparov walk out of the restaurant. Did he know about the Karl Marx connection? Maybe I should have... checked?

Quo Vadis, the club, I have never been to. I am not the private club type. I wear socks and sandals simultaneously. But the restaurant I try to visit once a year, as a sort of guilty pleasure gift to mark notable achievements. And I always order the Smoked Eel sandwich. It is really, like the best things in life, a very uncomplicated little thing. Five ingredients. Smoked eel fillet. Sourdough bread. Horseradish cream. Dijon mustard. Butter. With a little bit of sirke waaley pyaaz on the side.

Not cheap. Eleven pounds and fifty pence. Not expensive. In moderation.

It is really a tremendous sandwich.

But see, this is the thing. You don’t have to go to Jeremy Lee’s to eat a good sandwich in the UK. They are everywhere. Away in Suffolk, in a little town called Framlingham, surely the most Tamil-sounding of all British places, there is a hotel called The Crown with a restaurant. It is a short walk from Framlingham Castle where Queen Mary discovered that she would succeed Henry VIII and become the first Queen regnant of England.

The Crown makes a Chicken Club Sandwich that is memorable not for its taste, which is superb, but for its balance. Chicken club sandwiches are hard to get right. Too much chicken and everything is dry and bland. Too much tomato and everything turns into a mess. Bread too crusty? Lacerated mouth. Bread too soft? It will collapse. If the Club Sandwich were to become an issue at the United Nations, India would 100 per cent  abstain. Too complicated.

But The Crown balances it all very nicely and also serves a crackling portion of French fries on the side.

Or you could go to a nice supermarket and buy bread and little pots of sandwich fillers. Go home, make fresh sandwiches, and enjoy.

Which flavour? Coronation Chicken seems the only appropriate choice now, don’t you think?

Sidin Vadukut lives and works in the UK. He is Director, Strategy at Clarisights, and author of several works of fiction and non-fiction. A tree fell on him once.