A crash course in Austrian sandwiches and rolls

As I rode the 10a bus through the outer districts to see “the nephew”, I overheard two British lads, probably in their early 20s, talking about football and garage sandwiches. The former subject has been pretty wall-to-wall for the last month with the World Cup taking place in Russia, but the latter was a slightly surprising one. One of the two passengers was lamenting his recent purchase from a BP garage, which was very bland and unsatisfying and his companion chipped in with “Austrians just don’t get proper sandwiches”.

His companion showed off his prowess in describing the array of Greggs sandwiches or Pret baguettes to his mate and his bemoaning the apparent lack of Austrian variety in supermarkets and garages momentarily made me question whether he might have a point, but then I found (albeit one that I kept to myself) the perfect counter-argument: just because Austria is not UK does not mean it has to nevertheless embrace the sandwich culture that the UK has, and nor does it need to. The comparison is one of apples and pears (without any cockney chicanery before the image of Dick van Dyke springs to mind) – or a case of “different strokes for different folks”.

This soundbite came just after my neighbour told me about the forthcoming British week, which is set to arrive at Hofer, and she told me that there was a recipe for cucumber sandwiches. I sheepishly feigned semi-interest. For me the cucumber sandwich recipe is remarkably simple: brown bread, mandolined cucumber slices and some butter. Sandwiches cut into triangles (4 per round) with the crusts off. Please allow me to be underwhelmed.

If there is anything that I could consider saying that I miss that is at all like a sandwich, it is not the cucumber sandwich, but the “oh-so-soft” fluffy white rolls that the UK has. However, having learned how to make them by hand in the early 1990s, as a comfort food when I first moved into a  flat with an oven in Austria, at a time when my connection to the UK was stronger than it is now, a soft roll felt like a piece of home. Albeit a home with an Austrian cheese or jam filling.

My love affair with rolls has been a long one. A soft roll, baked at home, with a runny yoked fried egg and a dollop of ketchup still makes for a very pleasant treat, and the fried egg was my staple diet for part of the early 1990s when I only had a two ring hot plate in a flat I stayed in for a while. Over the years, particularly back in the 1990s when I was on the road a lot for, and had a per diem from work, I’ve also learned to appreciate the Austrian way of doing rolls, as opposed to the British way.

For me Austria is a roll country, not a sandwich country. Many colleagues on the road with me used to live exclusively off cheap packaged sandwiches and blow their per diem on drinks in the evening, having a liquid dinner, with a stale bar Brezel the only non-liquid component. It was then that I discovered the Semmel with cold cuts or freshly sliced cheese vastly more preferable to the chilled manufactured, sandwiches. And of course, Austria being the land of open sandwiches slathered with dips and spreads, has meant that my memory of UK sandwiches is stuck back in a bygone era.

In a time that was pre-Internet and long before smartphones, when I travelled a lot for work, we also used to have lists of places to eat in various towns and cities as a printed sort of informal directory to help us find a good place to eat. It would list bakers open through lunchtime (a downside of being open from 6am was that 12-3pm might be siesta time for the baker), although in the case of some towns, the list would invariably have a filling station. From the per diem lifestyle, I rapidly realised that a sandwich lunch and the best dinner from the list I could get while on the road with a good glass of wine or a couple of beers was the way to “mug” the system.

Others had other approaches – the standardised lunch menu (soup and a main) got quite repetitive,  and I was also never one to make lunch sandwiches from the breakfast buffet (one “trick” of some fellow journeymen). For me, there was something utterly unappealing about the squashed mess that the hastily made sandwich or roll was by lunchtime. Instead, where possible, I would take a walk to the nearest supermarket (again in rural places it might sometimes be a case of wherever was open, or having to time the walk to well before lunch hour), and to hope that it might have a deli section, where I would ask the serving staff to make up a fresh roll.

Even when choice was more restricted than now, it was possible to often have a freshly prepared Semmel (whether round or long, brown or white etc.) with any type of ham, salad, any kind of sliced cheese, with or without butter. I used to go for a local cheese too, which was far more satisfying than a pre-made sandwich of some processed cheese. I used to actively avoid the plastic bags full of semi-stale Semmeln, which has now been replaced by the Backshop/Backbox/Backecke selling freshly baked rolls.

Back in those days, sliced bread was seldom to be found in Austria, frequently often only masquerading as “Singletoast”, which was not designed as a sandwich loaf. Now, the bread aisle has all sorts of sandwich loaves – often about three or four different types from the cheapest that is good for toast and bread sauce through to the EUR 3 Farmer loaf, which is a cut above the Sunblest and Mother’s Pride that I left behind in the UK (albeit a price category above them too). I am glad to report that “Mighty White” has not reached Austria (although I am uncertain as to whether it has met its demise in the UK).

Possibly the UK has upped its game on the sandwich front quickly than Austria, and the gentrification of a national dish is definitely the case – the choice of rolls and fillings has exploded, and possibly the role of a sandwich is also no longer what it used to be. Consumers are more demanding, the leeching of American influence have seen the likes of Subway take over, along with the ubiquitous Greggs. Similarly, fillings have been “pimped”, with staples of yesteryear such as boiled egg, sandwich spread, salad cream all visibly shunned. The tomatoes are sun-dried, the cheese might be Brie or Stilton with grapes or cranberry sauce, and the sandwich, from being from a white loaf might now be some artisan bread. Austria seems more adverse to such Schnickschnack, although “bobo” bakers have also sprouted like Topsy, as competition to the chain bakeries, sadly all to the detriment of the independent baker. Anker, Ströck, Der Mann, Felber all produce on an industrial scale, but even they are having a battle with the supermarket bakeries.

But for all the gentrification of the “butty”, there is also something very reassuring of something so simple as a bread roll. When I got home from my recent break in Styria and Salzburg, there was something very pleasant about a bit of Mondseer in a sandwich of toasted bread with a slice of Kürbiskernschinken and a bit of mustard – a humble cheese and ham sandwich, although somewhat upmarket compared to the Red Leicester, pared away from the outside of the wheel of cheese, and the leftover ham from the roast that used to be the ham and cheese sandwich of my youth, but that nevertheless was still a lot more satisfying than many bakery/petrol station/supermarket sandwiches – that seem to sneak in boiled eggs wherever possible.

Rolls and sandwiches have a parallel – the hamburger. The march of the burger is seemingly unstoppable and has successfully invaded everywhere. To some extent the burger has managed to oust the toasted sandwich in people’s affections. However, a well-executed fresh roll or sandwich (not the catering stock toasted sandwich (the Käsetoast or the Schinkenkäsetoast)) will still beat a bad burger – the one with the stale preservative-laden bun, horrendously overcooked patty, token relishes, salad etc. and the hyping of the humble patty has probably also been instrumental in its surge also on the price front, as unless you are willing to pay main course prices for a burger, the experience is frequently very disappointing.

Doubtless part of the patty price inflation is due to the current love affair with milky brioches (which I try to avoid) as well as the sweet potato fries, or jacket wedge style fries, that have eroded the dominance of Pommes. I won’t, for example, go for a Fleischlaibchensemmel at a supermarket. I’ll stick to eating my Fleischlaibchen hot, with gravy, roast onions and mash as a full sit-down main course. There is however one positive of the burger becoming less working class, namely that if you shun the system gastronomy burger offerings (think golden arches or the other one) and have one from the menu in a Wirtshaus, you can now enjoy your burger cooked another way other than “catering well done”.

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