It is the time of year when professional organisations and lobbies get together in interminable, self-congratulatory ceremonies and hand out awards – from films, to sport, to music and even agriculture, there have been innumerable ceremonies since the start of the year. Not to be outdone, I have decided to hand out an award, so ….
In the category of THE MOST UNLIKELY STAR OF THE WEEK IN FRANCE, the nominees are …
François Fillon, French Republican Party candidate in the up and coming Presidential election, for is role in the complicated and long running saga « The man who will not be President. »
Isabelle Huppert – gorgeous French actress for her role in the film – « The Lady who missed the Oscar »
The humble ham sandwich for its role as « France’s favourite lunchtime snack. »
And the winner is
THE HAM SANDWICH
Yes, amidst all the current political and social turmoil in La Belle France, the nations media found the time to spare a few minutes and column inches for the humble ham sandwich
Last week, the French fat food industry held its annual Professional show at the Porte de Versailles exhibition centre on the edge of Paris, and this year, as every year, journalists went along looking for a few off beat stories to lighten the load in what is currently very heavy and depressing national news coverage – but why the ham sandwich?
Well, long before anyone in France had ever heard of hamburgers or kebabs, or any kind of « fast food » for that matter, the humble ham sandwich was the staple « fast food » Easy to make, quick to eat and highly affordable, the ham sandwich was the lunchtime standard for many workers – wolfed down in a matter of minutes whilst standing at the bar in a café, and highly affordable – just a few francs. The ham sandwich is an iconic, national institution.
So, all you would be French speakers out there will be toying with the translation of « ham sandwich » – sandwiche jambon ??? sandwiche au jambon ??? You are all wrong, this lunchtime staple which represented 51% of all sandwich sales in 2016, actually goes under the name of « le jambon beurre » – ham and butter sandwich. This presupposes that if you just ask for a « sandwiche au jambon » you won’t actually get any butter – and a long time ago, you would have been right.
A SANDWICH IN 76
A personal memory from the long hot summer of 1976 – mum has taken us to France for our annual Gallic camping trip. It is a sweltering day in Perpignan, around lunchtime, and as with lunchtimes of old, everything is closed from midday to 2pm – great if you want a long lunch, but lousy if your car has just broken down – which is the case of our crappy old Renault 6. Luck would have it that mum has found a couple of strapping young men, willing to push us a few hundred metres from where we have broken down, to the forecourt of a local garage, which is of course closed for lunch. It would seem a good idea to have lunch and wait. We head to a nearby café and order (in our best broken French) « un jambon sandwiche s’il vous plaît monsieur. » The wrinkled old, wine soaked patron, with a Gitane stuck to his lower lip, disappears into the kitchen, emerging a few minutes later with the ham sandwiches. First bite – NO BUTTER –
« Où est le beurre monsieur ? »
Consternation from the « patron » who gesticulates wildly and shouts « beurre » a few times. We understand that if we wanted butter we should have ordered butter, so we do, and the café owner disappears in a new fug of Gitane smoke to spread butter on our sandwiches, and when the bill comes, he charges us for butter.
Howls of indignation
« He can’t charge us for the butter! » exclaims mum, but he does, because we ordered a « Jambon sandwiche » and not a « jambon beurre sandwiche », when our humble ham sandwich became a ham and butter sandwich, we had to pay the dairy differential.
In 2016 the French chomped their way through a staggering 1,2 billion ham sandwiches, though this figure is 3% down compared to 2015. Consumed in Cafés or bought at the bakers or the local supermarket, the average national price for a jambon beurre (JB) is 2.93 Euros. The cheapest JB is to be found in the northern French town of Lille (2,52€) whilst the most expensive JB in France is not in Paris, but in the eastern town of Montbélliard (3,52€), there are however unconfirmed reports of a JB in the west coast town of Nantes retailing at 4€ – add to this the price of a drink, around 3€ and you are starting to look at an « expensive » lunch when you consider the alternatives –
JAMBON BEURRE VS HAMBURGER
Take that other « fast food » – the hamburger. At McDonald’s you can get a whole Happy Meal for 4€ (burger, fries drink, dessert and even a toy). For the adults there is the « Best Of » menu – burger fries and a drink retailing at an average of 6,30€. KFC, Burger King or even the home-grown hamburger chain; Quick – you can get a standard burger, coke and fries lunch for under 7 Euros.
So, you wanna a traditional sit down lunch in a Brasserie with starter, main course, cheese, dessert and a small carafe of wine. Well big city or small town, you’ll be looking to spend anywhere from 10€ to 15€ – the bar at the end of my street does main coures, dessert, coffee and a glass of wine for 10€ – no wonder the place is always packed at lunchtime.
For all its cultural significance as the French national sandwich, the good old jambon beurre, unlike other iconic homespun French dishes, has never appeared on one of the nation’s TV cooking shows – Top Chef, Master Chef … candidates might be asked for a new take on Bœuf Bourgignon or a Tête de Veau – but none has ever been asked to « revamp » the good old jambon beurre. Why bother though? The JB is simplicity itself – rip open a baguette, butter it up and then shove in a slice of ham. Hey Presto! Lunch!
THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY
National price differentials in the jambon beurre obviously don’t come from labour costs – it’s al about the quality of the ingredients – take freshly baked crusty French bread, apply a generous covering of fresh dairy butter and then a good thick slice of traditionally cured farmhouse ham. You could also do what most people do, buy a cheap baguette and a pack of cheap, watery factory ham from the supermarket. Cut open the baguette without cracking it all (yes there are many bakers who sell freshly defrosted bread freshly baked the day before), apply a thin covering of margarine, whack in a bright pink slice of sloppy ham and …. And this is like to be the sandwich reality of many people.
It is hardly surprising therefore that ham sandwich consumption is falling. Yes the Jambon Beurre accounts for 51% of national sandwich sales, but in 2009 it represented 63% and not long before that it was 70% – but it was probably a lousy quality sandwich so people stopped buying it.
I’ll have to admit to not being a ham sandwich fan – if I do actually have lunch (which is pretty rare); I like something sexier than a humble ham sandwich. I would have to say though that in general, the French sandwich bar experience is a pretty sad one – dry sandwiches with unimaginative fillings.
A few years back, I accompanied a group of French friends to London – come lunchtime one day, wandering around near Waterloo station , I suggested we head to a pub for a traditional pub lunch – general scowls and mistrustful looks all round, – the Gallic misconception that all British food is bad. A few yards down the road, one friend sees a sign « Prêt à Manger, »
« Ah, un restaurant français » and in we all trooped. Ah not a restaurant, a sandwich bar. Never mind it is reassuringly French- and my friends order soup and sandwiches and tuck in and chomp their way through all manner of sandwiches including Bacon Lettuce and Tomato, a Pastrami Bagel and a Peking Duck Wrap. And they all smile at me and laud the quality of these French sandwiches. I am of course saving the best ‘til last – despite the French name, Prêt à Manger is actually British. AAAAGH Perfide Albion. A sandwich Waterloo moment.
It comes down to ne thing. Apart from the Jambon Beurre, France is not a sandwich culture and the French just don’t make a decent sandwich. Who invented the sandwich anyway and how would you really translate sandwich into French ? Une baguette farcie ??
An afterthought – if the JB’s position of sandwich predominance is being slowly eroded, it might also be in part down the Bagel or Beigel, which I notice, has now even reached my corner of small town France – seems like I’ll be waiting a long time for decent salt beef though.