What was sickening about a tomato sandwich? Harriet felt the taste in her mouth. Were they crazy? It was the best taste in the world. Her mouth watered at the memory of the mayonnaise.
Harriet the Spy, Louise Fitzhugh
England smells of summer this week. Of newly mown grass, of rain hitting hot tarmac, of the wisteria that hangs from brick walls, and of fields of wild garlic. I’ve been walking a lot – even in the rain – soaking it all in. At the greengrocer, the produce has shifted too, and space has been cleared for asparagus and radishes and punnets of strawberries. And, of course, English tomatoes.
Such is our desire for the ubiquitous tomato that they are available year-round, in corner shops, farm shops and supermarkets. From November – April, their insipid orange-red hue is useful in alerting us to their sub-par taste. Winter tomatoes are a disappointing sibling of their glorious summer cousins – they may as well be a different food. It’s a time to reach for the tinned variety, which carry me through the colder months. But when May arrives, with longer evenings and warmer days, the smell of tomatoes is overwhelming, and I am rarely without a bag or box of them in the kitchen.
When I was at school, my mum was famous for her sandwiches. They were spectacular feats of engineering, loaded high with chopped salad and some form of meat, fish or cheese. They were also as far from soggy school sandwiches as it is possible to be; somehow the lettuce always stayed crisp, and she wrapped slices of tomato and tinned beetroot separately for us to add ourselves once morning tea rolled around (I could never save them for lunchtime). At my sister’s Hen’s night a couple of years ago, a friend of hers revealed that she frequently used to swap her tuck shop money for ‘Deb’s sandwiches’, leaving Luce with a meat pie, while her friend enjoyed my mum’s packed lunches. A very funny discovery, years after the fact, but I couldn’t help thinking that you’d have had to prise those sandwiches out of my cold, dead hands.
I have never quite had the knack my mum had, and so my years of packed lunches have mostly consisted of leftovers, batch cooking, or salads. Now freelance, and working next to a kitchen all day, I am rediscovering a love for lunchtime sandwiches. After all, when you’re eating it immediately after assembly, it matters less that the ingredients might make the bread a little soggy. And so, though I had hundreds to choose from (books, especially those for children, are littered with mentions to sandwiches), I wanted to recreate Harriet’s favourite tomatoes sandwiches this week.
A final note: mayonnaise is endlessly flexible in terms of flavours – play around with what works for you. If you prefer olive oil, use that. If you’d rather lemon juice or white wine vinegar in place of the cider vinegar, do so. If you don’t like English mustard, put Dijon in instead, or try it with a spot of Wasabi. There are so many options. It’s so quick and simple that I’m forever looking for excuses to make another batch.
Serves 1 (with leftover mayonnaise)
1 egg yolk
2tsp cider vinegar
150ml good rapeseed oil
¼ tsp hot English mustard
Two slices sourdough (I used the fennel sourdough from Bread Ahead in Borough Market)
2-3 of the freshest tomatoes you can find
For this to be a really great sandwich, all ingredients (those for the mayonnaise, as well as the tomatoes and bread), need to be at room temperature.
1. To make the mayonnaise, put the egg yolk in the bowl. Whisk it for a minute or so until it is sticky and has bubbles. Add one teaspoon of the vinegar and whisk again until combined. Put your oil into a jug or bottle that is easy to control.
2. Start dribbling the oil into the egg yolk, one drop at a time, whisking continuously. Keep your eye on the oil, not on the bowl. The moment you take your eye off it, you’ll accidentally pour a great big glug in – trust me.
3. Keep whisking until the egg and oil mix resembles thick cream. Once it does, you can start being a little more generous with the oil, adding up to a teaspoon at a time. When you have about 2tbsp of oil left, add the second teaspoon of vinegar. Whisk well. The consistency should be thick and spreadable, and stiff enough to hold the pattern that forms when you drag the whisk through it. If it is not quite there, gradually add as much of the extra oil as you need.
4. Try the mayonnaise and add mustard, pepper and salt to taste.
5. Spread some mayonnaise on one piece of the sourdough. Top with lots of thick slices of tomato. Put a thin spread of mayonnaise on the underside of the other piece of bread and place it on top. I mean – you probably don’t need me to explain this bit. It’s a sandwich…
Eat it immediately. No cling film, no lunchbox, no soggy bread.