The Simple Pleasure of an Open Faced Sandwich
Discovering a region's favored open-faced sandwich is a simple yet delightful experience.
I have been a food writer and editor for more than 30 years. As such, I have been blessed with the opportunity to dine at some of the finest restaurants in the world. And while I marvel at the time and talent it takes to prepare a meal at a Michelin 3-star restaurant, I must admit that my true culinary preferences lie elsewhere.
Perhaps my taste for simply-prepared foods started when I took my first trip to Europe. I was 19 and my family had just moved to London. I had finished two years of college and took a year off to join them. Before London we had visited Amsterdam and I’d become enamored of the canal house breakfasts of slices of dense dark bread offered up with butter, ham and cheese. In London, there was a bakery on the Kings Road around the corner from our little Chelsea flat that sold big, beautiful uncut loaves of white sandwich bread, crusty on the outside and squishy on the inside. A thick slice of that bread layered with salted butter, smoked salmon, cucumber and watercress, or slathered with orange marmalade and slices of genuine Cheddar cheese, was unlike anything I had ever tasted.
A year after returning from London I backpacked on the cheap through Europe for several months, and just about lived on open-faced sandwiches. Wherever I was it was easy to get some bread, cheese and cured meat and slap them together for an inexpensive, nourishing and delicious lunch or dinner, whether at the park, the beach or a town square. And each layering of local ingredients told a story of place: baguette, Brie, and jambon de Bayonne in France; ciabatta, pecorino, and prosciutto in Italy; and country bread, Manchego and jamón de Serrano in Spain.
On that backpacking trip I was lucky enough to stay with a family in a little mountain town called Rocca di Mezzo in the rugged region of Abruzzo, Italy. The family owned a trattoria and each morning we would head on horseback into the surrounding mountains and fields to pick wild greens. The greens were later sautéed in olive oil with garlic and piled high atop grilled bread for bruschette, which were as singular and luscious as the gathering experience was unique.
The traveling did not end there nor did the inspiring single-sliced sandwiches. I lived in Paris for two years, made many trips to Sweden, and traveled repeatedly to France, Italy, Spain, Mexico and throughout the British Isles for work over the course of twenty years. Most recently I took a heritage trip to Germany and Poland. And in every country I visited, I discovered sandwiches that were utterly captivating. They could be as simple as a piece of Poilâne bread spread with aged goat cheese at La Tartine, a scruffy little wine bar I love in Paris, and crostini of unsalted bread topped with classic Tuscan chicken liver spread that I was served on the terrace of a friend’s house outside of Florence. I bought grilled bread rubbed with garlic and the cut half of a juicy tomato at a stand at La Boquería food market in Barcelona, and petite squares of rye smeared with dill butter and dotted with diminutive shrimp at a konditori in Stockholm. An elegant coffee house in Berlin served pumpernickel slathered with quark, and just about every restaurant in Poland served chewy dark bread spread with smalec — rendered white pork fat flavored with onion, garlic, spices and pork cracklings. I had canned beans on white toast in a caf’ in London, and a split roll mounded with beans, melted cheese and salsa at a workers’ restaurant in Mexico City.
I realized that when I was a child my mother fed me open-faced sandwiches without calling them such. For her, using one piece of bread was more about cutting calories than about culinary creativity, but it was probably also the vestige of growing up with a Russian mother from a poor background, for whom eating a slice of pumpernickel or rye topped with boiled tongue, chopped liver, herring, or thin slices of onion and radish had been a way of life. So by feeding me things on toast— cottage cheese, tuna salad, egg salad, melted cheese, poached eggs, sliced salami — she was passing down a tradition. There are open faced sandwiches all over the globe and part of my pleasure in travel is in discovering them wherever I go.