Bread and butter occupation

If chicken tikka with mixed salad and French dressing isn’t enough to tempt you back to the humble sandwich – quite apart from what it may do to your delicate alimentary organs – then what about banana, walnut and tomato, chocolate cookie and cream cheese or avocado with an unspeakable side dressing?

Among the stranger foods on sale throughout snack bar and deli counter land this summer is a new breed of weirdo sandwiches which defies every rule governing what the human stomach can bear.

Yet far from sending most people running to their doctor, these quirky mixtures are spearheading a long-awaited marketing revival in the fortunes of the much-maligned sarnie industry.

It all began last year with the launch of alligator sandwiches. Initially seen merely as a clever publicity stunt – just 100 of the sarnies were made, each bearing a certificate of consumption – the decision by Selfridges to take on the whole consignment had traditional sandwich makers laughing on the other side of their margarine tubs.

For too long, say sandwich gurus, British sandwich consumers have been forced to put up with soggy cheese and tomato or thinly-spread fish paste and the limpest of lettuce. But with the native palate becoming increasingly moved to try any sort of exotica, there are generous spoils awaiting the more adventurous sandwich-man.

This year’s adventure is the kangaroo and raspberry sandwich which is served on ciabatta with a pot of raspberry sauce on the side. Tested earlier this year at the IFE 95 exhibition, “roo and raspberry” is the brainchild of sandwich gourmets Peter and John Bartlett, co-directors of Breadwinner – supplier to Harrods, Tesco Metro and others – who believe that the principles of product development and good marketing are sorely lacking in sandwich land.

John Bartlett admits “roo and raspberry” hasn’t gone down too well with squeamish consumers, but he says he will continue to push forward the boundaries of experimentation. “It’s true that people always return to something like tuna and cucumber – after all, we sell about 6,000 of those every week and they are our top line – but to keep this market fresh, we need constant innovation.”

It was Breadwinner that first introduced alligator sandwiches into Britain and which carefully considered – but decided against – making the roo and raspberry variety just a little more piquant by marinading the meat in Foster’s lager.

Its other sandwich specials include the “electoral roll” – a colour co-ordinated product for local elections – and “game, set and match”, a strawberry-based sandwich delicacy that usually goes on sale during Wimbledon fortnight, but this year is still proving popular several weeks after the event.

Even the smaller sandwich producers are using more imagination nowadays. My own favourite, made and marketed locally in South London, is the “Greenwich treat”, a feast of avocado and salad complete with tiny replicas of the Cutty Sark made out of tomato wedges.

With Thai cooking having such a pronounced effect on British culinary tastes, it is little wonder that the predominantly sweet and sour tastes of lime juice or chillies are filtering down into sandwich land. In fact, so cosmopolitan is the humble sandwich today, says food writer Theo Baynes, that virtually every leading ethnic dish is represented in the more adventurous of sandwich bars.

From Chinese chicken and goat meat to satay, massala and Balti, London sandwich bars in particular are becoming adept at harnessing changing tastes and encapsulating them between two slices of bread.

“Although sandwiches are still very much a cottage industry,” says Baynes, “they are ripe for conversion into a homogeneous, and hugely profitable consumer market.

“The food giants have so far neglected the sandwich sector, but there are signs that following the lead of speciality sandwich producers, the big names are about to rediscover the simple sarnie.”

Such ingenuity in sandwich filling does not, however, mean that we Britons are deserting our natural homeland of ploughman’s with pickle. For aside from the more exotic delights on the Marks & Spencer designer sandwich counter – which sells about 86 million sandwiches each year, including the ever- popular BLT and the chicken tikka – it is cheddar cheese, humble ham and prawns that still make up the bulk of the British sandwich market.

Figures are notoriously hard to pin down, but it is believed that less than a quarter of the estimated 6 billion sandwiches consumed in Britain are bought commercially, with the remainder still lovingly home-prepared for lunchboxes and briefcases.

For greasy spoons and motorway cafes, sandwich buyers fall into two distinct camps. There are those who favour mammoth white bread, bacon or fried egg sarnies washed down with buckets of sweet tea. They’re the ones who breakfast so early that they accidentally dip their copies of the Sun into their mugs when they’re not concentrating.

And then there are the sandwich-eaters who demand brown bread and bits of salad with everything. But they may be getting more “bits” than they bargain for.

A number of Consumers’ Association reports have highlighted the risk of food poisoning in commercially-prepared sandwiches, particularly stomach-wrenching botulism, yet few people realise just how serious the problem is.

The British Sandwich Association is on record as saying that as many as 500 of the 600 sandwich manufacturers in this country fail to meet the BSA’s minimum food safety standards. It hopes to launch later this year a quality mark for those sandwich retailers who do manage to pass the industry’s own testing criteria.

One sandwich maker who believes market segmentation is the route to future growth is Jasper Toft, a supplier to Somerfield and Debenhams. Toft Foods’ Options range includes Classic Options, with mainstream fillings such as cheese or chicken; Light Options, with low-calorie fillings; and Special Options – the gourmet fillings on speciality bread. All three are colour-coded.

As leading supermarkets such as Sainsbury’s and Tesco invest heavily in their fast-food formats, there is a remote possibility that speciality sandwiches may one day be delivered to homes and offices along with other groceries. Tesco’s own-brand alligator on rye? Well, it’s a thought.

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