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The Francesinha is the best ham and cheese sandwich in the world

What is the easiest-to-make tasty sandwich in the world?

Well, that’s not hard to answer: a chutney sandwich. You take (or make) a kothmir (coriander) chutney, spread it on a slice of bread, place a filling of thinly sliced cucumber on it and top with another slice of chutnified bread.

 

The tang of the chutney will take away the maida taste of the white bread (if you want to get all fancy, you can use artisanal brown bread but then, it helps to whip the chutney with butter before spreading it) and the cucumber provides texture as well as a cool counterpoint to the teekha chutney.

 

   Not only is it easy to make, it requires ingredients that are easily available at most of our homes: bread, cucumber and chutney. It really is the perfect Indian sandwich, brilliant in its simplicity.

 

   But if you are not a vegetarian and perhaps not an Indian, then what is the world’s greatest sandwich?

 

   That’s easy too.

 

   Ham and cheese!

 

   Nobody has ever been able to explain to me why ham and cheese should go so well together, between two slices of bread, but such is the global popularity of this sandwich that you will find some variation of it nearly everywhere in the world.

 

   It always strikes me as odd that even in an era when we didn’t have access to good ham or quality cheese in India, the ham and cheese sandwich was a menu staple. As a schoolboy in Bombay, I would be allowed, as a special treat, to eat a grilled ham and cheese sandwich from Khyber in Kala Ghoda. (The restaurant then became much more famous for its Indian food and the sandwich probably dropped off the menu.)

 

   At the Sea Lounge, the one restaurant at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel that you did not need to save up to go to, one of the most popular (and cheapest also) items on the menu was the ham and cheese toastie. It was the standard ham and cheese sandwich that we made at home, down to that toasting device that you held over the gas. I guess we liked it because it was glamorous and familiar at the same time.

 

   I always wondered if the toastie was something that was only popular in India in the ’60s, but while researching this piece, I pinned down its origins. The English began using the term ‘toastie’ many decades ago (for a ham and cheese sandwich apparently). Of course nobody bothers with the old style hand-held toastie makers these day. They are usually electrical and are like waffle irons without the ridges. In the Netherlands, (according to Wikipedia, at least) a toasted ham and cheese sandwich is still called a Tosti.

 

   The king of the ham and cheese sandwich genre is the croque-monsieur, the national sandwich of France. There are many versions (even a croque-madame).

 

   I’ll have to explain what it is to you. Though I yield to nobody in my admiration for French cuisine (except to the French themselves), the croque-monsieur is, frankly, not a sandwich that has caught on in the rest in the world. (Well, in Belgium, perhaps? Quebec? I don’t know.)

 

   The croque-monsieur was invented in the early part of the 20th Century (it turned up on café menus in 1910). At that stage, it consisted of slices of ham between two slices of brioche-like bread. It was topped with grated cheese and then either fried or baked in the oven. Later, fancier versions emerged: Comté cheese, béchamel (white) sauce, a hard cheese crust on top etc. When they started putting a fried or poached egg on it (croque- madame), it became even less of a sandwich and more of a knife-and-fork dish.

 

"Joe and Sameer agreed that there was one local Porto speciality I had to try. It was the Francesinha sandwich."

   There are very few foodie things that the Brits do better than the French. The cheese and ham sandwich is one of them. Even Larousse, the bible of French cooking, concedes that the French did not invent this sandwich. Larousse gives the credit to a British sandwich called a Connolly (after its inventor, who Larousse does not fail to point out, was not English: he had emigrated from Ireland).

 

   I reckon that people who have been brought up on the Brit version (as Indians have been) will never be too keen on the French version. Even now, if you see a croque-monsieur on a menu in Asia, it usually means only one thing: expat chef.

 

   But last month, I discovered what might be my favourite version of the ham and cheese sandwich. To be fair, it wasn’t really a ham and cheese sandwich at all. But for the purposes of this article, we shall pretend it was and is – and it is part of the same family, anyway.

 

   Last month, I went to Porto, mysteriously declared a year ago as the world’s greatest destination. This means that this lovely town in one of my favourite countries, Portugal, is now overrun by tourists, many of them American.

 

   At every Michelin starred or even vaguely famous restaurant, rich American guests loudly discussed such issues as the Kavanaugh hearing. “I believe that this woman is lying,” said the guy at the table next to us at Cantinho do Avillez, one of the famous Portuguese chef José Avillez’s more casual establishments. “These woman just lie, all liberals do,” said a prosperous-looking fellow at the next table. (I had to physically restrain my wife from getting into an altercation with him.)

 

   I didn’t mind feeling that we had gone to Palm Beach not Porto because I knew I could skip the tourist hordes and count on two lists of restaurants provided by friends. The first contained determinedly non-touristy places chosen by Sameer Seth, one of the owners of Mumbai’s O Pedro and The Bombay Canteen.

 

   The second came from Joe Warwick, the famous British food writer (“Where Chefs Eat”) who was one of the creators of the original World’s 50 Best Restaurants List. I don’t know Joe but when my friend Fay Maschler told him that my wife and I were going to Porto, Joe very kindly sent me a list of places to eat that were not tourist-infested. (Like all journos, I pretend I am not a tourist when I visit new places.)

 

   Joe and Sameer agreed that there was one local Porto speciality I had to try. It was the Francesinha sandwich. Joe was very clear:  “This is a very important subject and so it must be handled with care”.  The guide books had recommended various places for the Francesinha but Joe was dismissive. “Do not be fooled by some famous ones like Tappas Caffe or Capa Negra. Bufete Fase used to be good but now I wouldn’t recommend it anymore.”

 

   As you have already guessed, a Francesinha is a sandwich. And according to Joe “it should have melted cheese (not au gratin), spicy sauce and two different kinds of sausages bought from a special butcher in Bolhao. This is really important.”

 

   Then Joe wrote a little about the provenance of the sandwich: “You should know that Francesinha is a recipe brought over from France by a Portuguese man that lived there. It is inspired by the croque-monsieur. The creator used to do it with meal leftovers. Rumour has it that he called it Francesinha (little French woman) because it is hot and spicy.”

 

   Ah yes....

 

   Sameer had warned: “Porto has a famous Sandwich called Francesinha. Order only one as it is extremely heavy.”

 

   Ha!

 

   So I went all over looking for the sandwich and never stopped at half when I could have the full thing. I had José Avillez’s version (nice, but too fancy: like a burger made by Gordon Ramsay.) The Cafe Majestic version was rubbish. (Nobody goes to this historical café for the food.) One or two others were not bad. But Joe was right. The Café Santiago version was easily the best. I went early but by the time I left, there was a queue for tables.

 

   So is the Francesinha the best ham and cheese sandwich in the world?

 

   Without a doubt.

 

   But bear in mind that it’s not really a simple ham and cheese sandwich. Which is fine. Why go to a restaurant for a mere ham and cheese sandwich? You can make a good one a home.

 

   If you do go out for a classic sandwich, then you must eat something that has a little bit extra!  Not just classic but also special.

 

 

Posted On: 20 Oct 2018 03:20 PM
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