Cucumber sandwiches. The mascots to any cricket match, the emblem of Victorian and Edwardian aristocracy, and, naturally, the stubborn patriarch of today’s afternoon tea. Like the greedy inheritor of a great fortune, the cucumber sandwich sits on its three-tiered throne and stubbornly refuses to give way to other, more modern, culinary delights. It outlives the comings and goings of the ham, smoked salmon, and egg mayo sandwiches: but has the cucumber sandwich compromised itself in order to keep the throne?
The frequent intermarriages with smoked salmon, cream cheese, and even basil bread, have weakened the royal sandwich’s line, and its public appearances with crusts left on or, worse, cucumber slices unpeeled, are making a complete mockery of what was once a mark of high rank and Victorian taste. The scones, cream and jam look down from the dizzying heights of the top tier, sniggering at what is the embarrassment below them, and the gaudy patisseries, greased up with apricot glaze and adorned with vulgar flourishes, flaunt their naked modernity in the face of the puritan sandwich.
True, the tenacity of the cucumber sandwich is unrivalled. Yet, in safeguarding its place on the cake stand, the sandwich has sold off its dignity, its integrity, its very soul: it has become, in every sense, a tragic hero. Its indulgent nature, its royal extravagance, has been trampled beneath years of ignorance and culinary laziness. People have forgotten the power and worth of the original cucumber sandwich, which keeps its position with the afternoon tea only because removing it would cause inconsolable guilt.
But there is hope yet. Tragedy, after all, is only defined by its end – and the cucumber sandwich has not yet met its end.
It is time to restore the cucumber sandwich to its former glory. In Oscar Wilde’s play, The Importance of being Earnest, Lady Bracknell orders cucumber sandwiches to be prepared for her arrival. One of the guests exclaims “Why cucumber sandwiches? Why such reckless extravagance in one so young?”. And indeed, Wilde is right. In their traditional form, cucumber sandwiches are, without exception, the most extravagant aspect of your afternoon tea. So bow down, artery-clogging clotted cream on scones, move over, chocolate sugar-rush tart, because the cucumber sandwich is the real noontime indulgence amongst you.
“But how can that be?” I hear you say. Because it is essentially the least filling food you could possibly consume, and therefore the most sumptuously decadent. Some might even call the cucumber sandwich “pointless”, a “waste” of cucumber, butter, bread and salt. And with wafer thin bread and papery cucumber, there’s nothing more insubstantial – and utterly ethereal – than the cucumber sandwich. Add to that the cutting off of crusts and the peeling of cucumber, two wholly unnecessary undertakings: but entirely vital if you’re to taste the delightful decadence, the irresponsible indulgence, of the unadulterated cucumber sandwich.
So here’s my take on how to reach into the depths of time and bring that ethereal gem back to the 21st century table.
2 tsp sea salt
White Pullman’s loaf
Butter at room temperature
First of all, peel the cucumber. Then slice it into rounds so thin, they’re translucent. Put them into a colander, and sprinkle the salt over all the cucumber slices. Leave for twenty minutes, which should be enough time for the process of osmosis to take some serious action.
Slice the Pullman’s bread extremely thin – you should be able to see light coming through the pores of the bread.
Squeeze the cucumber, making sure any excess moisture has been drained.
Butter the bread very lightly on one side, and lay the cucumber onto it, in two layers. You can always add some pepper. Put the other piece of bread on top, cut the crusts off, and slice into finger sandwiches.