Bensoir! It's me, Benjamin. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You may have read stuff I've written elsewhere, but here on my own blog as Ben Viveur I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others, so pretty much anything goes.

BV is about enjoying real food and drink in the real world. I showcase recipes that taste awesome, but which can be created by mere mortals without the need for tons of specialist equipment and a doctorate in food science. And as a critic I tend to review relaxed establishments that you might visit on a whim without having to sell your first-born, rather than hugely expensive restaurants and style bars in the middle of nowhere with a velvet rope barrier, a stringent dress code and a six-month waiting list!

There's plenty of robust opinion, commentary on the world of food and drink, and lots of swearing, so look away now if you're easily offended. Otherwise, tuck your bib in, fill your glass and turbo-charge your tastebuds. We're going for a ride... Ben Appetit!

Monday, June 25, 2012

Montaguan Bicenquinquagenary

As many people predicted, England’s strategy of playing for penalties coupled with being quite bad at taking penalties means that we’ll have to wait a while longer for national sporting pride to be restored.

Maybe we'll do better in the Tennis? Or maybe we won't. Andy Murray's first round match at Wimbledon is a ridiculously tough one against Davydenko, and if he gets through that, the giant Croat Ivo Karlovic will likely await him in the second round. Two very strong opponents who in previous Championships would have been amongst the seeds.

So prepare for the crushing disappointment of an early Murray exit. Our best hope of getting a player into the second week might be Laura Robson who won the Jailbait singles a few years ago.

Murray's not even English, anyway.

But one thing we true Englishmen, women and children can – nay, must - celebrate this year is the 250th anniversary of our people inventing the sandwich. Go England! Go John Montagu! Hereditary Peerage is the mother of invention!

I've blogged about sandwiches before, of course, as like many people I often eat them for my lunch, but now there's a (relatively) new sandwich shop in town: 

The Earl of Sandwich on Ludgate Hill looks very nice on the outside, with a fairly classy branding that emphasises the heritage and history of stuffing bread with tasty fillings.

Not only does Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, stare out from the logo, but there are several portraits of him and his ancestors upon the walls - the eyes following you around with a suspicious glare when you go to pick up your sandwich.

The 250-year-old new kid on the block
Aside from this, it’s just like a modern sandwich bar inside, very much optimised for the lunchtime take-out rush with a small eat-in area, but his Earlship definitely adds a touch of Englishness. And for the last year or so they’ve been serving up ‘the world’s greatest hot sandwich’ – or so it is boldly claimed.

Hot sandwiches full of meaty, cheesy fillings, eh? Sounds like somebody wants to compete with Birley! But how do they compare? Anybody trying to take Birley on at their own game is surely cruising for a bruising, right?

It’s like England trying to take on somebody in a penalty shootout!

But everybody deserves a second chance. Or, in this case, a first.

Where’s the beef?

The Earl's flagship sandwich is ‘the original 1762’ - roast beef, mature cheddar and horseradish sauce.

Now, I’m not convinced that a good beef and horseradish sandwich really needs the addition of cheese, which is probably a good thing, given that mine inexplicably arrived without it!

There's the beef!
It was full of beef though, which was mostly cooked medium-rare (probably about as good as it was going to get), nice and tender and actually rather good for a £4.75 sandwich. Roasted freshly on the premises too, apparently (just like Birley). The horseradish was nicely piquant and supplied in just the right quantity. I can see people eating this in the 18th century. Sort of.

The ‘bread’, however, is probably unlike anything the 4th Earl Montagu ever ate, being somewhere between a mini Ciabatta and a Panini. Light and spongey with a crispy exterior hot from the oven, it’s more like a deep-pan Chicago-style pizza base than anything you’d find in an English bakery 250 years ago.

Strangely though, it actually goes quite well with the beef and horseradish. I’d generally want my roast beef on some kind of granary bread, but the combination of hot meat and hot pizza base isn’t bad at all as a one-off.

However, all of the Earl’s sandwiches seem to feature this same bread and it’s probably not something you’d want to eat every day. (Contrast this with Birley where they understand that different fillings call for different breads!)

I'm not saying the beef was of the quality you'd get down the road at Simpsons in the Strand,  but by sandwich-filling standards it was way above average and I can see why it forms the basis of their flagship sandwich. Who needs cheese?

Simply the best?

As sandwich fillings go, there’s one classic combination that it’s hard to beat, so I was keen to sample their ‘Best BLT’ to see how it compared with other BLTs out there.

I'd already had the horseradishy beef, but I'd had only medication for breakfast and was in a hungry bastard mood. But I wish I'd done them the other way around.

Like revenge, I consider the BLT to be a dish best served cold, and places where they put the bacon in whilst it’s still hot risk jeopardising the natural harmony of the universe (and the consistency of the mayonnaise).

At the E of S, not only is the bacon hot, but so is the bread of course, which has the effect of heating the lettuce and tomato to create that strange and not entirely pleasant sensation of hot salad, usually delivered only by fast-food burger chains. (Oh, and in Thai food where hot salads are a completely different thing altogether and fucking great, obviously!)

I’d definitely challenge their claim of ‘Best BLT’ - Birley, predictably take that accolade - but it’s not quite the worst either. The back bacon is sweet and flavoursome and the vine tomato would’ve been great if it wasn’t so warm.

Not enough bacon or mayo though, and I just don’t think BLT is a filling that works in this kind of hot sandwich format. To be fair, some of their other options which I haven’t tried yet are almost certainly far better suited:

'The Best', apparently...
The meatball marinara with Mozzarella and Parmesan, for example. Or the Jerk chicken. Or the Ham and swiss cheese.

Another thing to bear in mind is that the sandwiches aren't quite as big and filling as certain other sandwiches on the market - without making that comparison yet again - which explains why I was comfortably able to eat two of the fuckers and still not feel overly full.

I'd have the beef again, and I'd be interested to try it with the Cheese as the Earl intended, but this interpretation of the BLT doesn't do a great PR job, given that it's a globally-popular filling that lots of first-time visitors are likely to choose.

Who are you and what are you doing here? 

A little investigation reveals that the Earl of Sandwich is actually an American chain, and the London branch is their first attempt at franchising back into the sandwich’s homeland. Their other branches are mostly in Disneyworld resorts. Suddenly everything makes a lot more sense.

But wait. One of the founders is actually the son of the current Earl of Sandwich who only relatively recently emigrated to Florida. The new pretender to the London sandwich scene is actually descended from the man who purportedly started it all 250 years ago.

These things often come full circle, and I do sense that their heart is in the right place. If they only just offered a couple of different choices in the bread department, they’d be onto a real winner and might even be able to challenge the Birley chain.

There are similarities between the two. Breakfast sandwiches and Porridge are available in the morning, and there are sideshows of salads and muffins and chocolate cookies (which I'm pleased to report are pleasantly gooey and chocolatey but on the small side).

They also have their own brand of crisps, which - with just one outlet in the UK - must surely, surely be a re-badge of someone elses crisps, right?!?

So, they might not be as historically authentic at they’d have us believe, and they might not be in quite the same league as Birley just yet, but the Earl Of Sandwich has the potential to go a long way, particularly if you have a craving for roast beef at lunchtime.

It would be pleasingly apt if their second English branch was actually in Sandwich, but that might be a wishful thought too far.

Where to find it...

Earl of Sandwich
38-40 Ludgate Hill
City of London,
EC4M 7DE (map)

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