Sunday, 15 January 2012

The greatest sandwich on earth

Pretty much everywhere in the world has a signature dish - some item of culinary alchemy that everyone who visits the area feels compelled to sample. Cornwall has its pasties, Bakewell has its tarts. And Sheffield has arguably the greatest sandwich on Earth - perhaps a little ironic given the city's cutlery-based heritage.

If you've ever lived in, or even briefly visited Sheffield, you may well have heard of Mr Béres. Kentucky had an honorary Colonel to thank for putting it on the foodie map, we have a Hungarian refugee who moved to the UK in 1956. Five years after setting up home in steel-town, Sandor Béres and his wife Eileen opened their first butcher's shop, specialising in pork and beef. Quickly recognising the city's seemingly insatiable appetite for hot meat sandwiches, Béres focused on that part of the business, and before too long had a thriving chain of shops across the city.

When I was a boy, I used to spend several days a week with my grandparents, while my dad was studying and my mum was attempting to support the family on a supply teacher's wage. The days were filled with walks along the river, watching one of the three TV channels that were available at the time, or staring in bewilderment as my grandpa pushed a heavy concrete roller over his small but impeccable lawn. And then once a week, he'd drive us into Hillsborough to visit one of Mr Béres' pork sandwich shops.

To the untrained eye, the shops were nothing special - the kind of place that would make Roy's Rolls look like The Ivy. The only clue to the wonders within was the constant queue of people lining up to get inside. Years later, when my dad and I would make our fortnightly pilgrimage to see Sheffield Wednesday play, we'd diligently join the line to grab a sandwich to take into the match. All to be washed down with a flask of hot Oxo. Given the high meat content of this Saturday afternoon ritual, I was certain that if I'd had a nosebleed, it would have been Bovril dripping down my shirt-front.

Thirty years later and nothing much has changed. The sandwiches still come in three sizes, and for me, graduating from one size to the next was like a rite of passage. As a child, I started out with half a standard (split with my sister), until I was considered mature enough to handle a whole one to myself. As my appetite grew, I moved onto the King Size - which used the same sized bun but was more generously stuffed with fillings. By the time I was in my teens, I was ready for the Jumbo, an almost grotesque sandwich that had to be held with both hands, even when it was cut in half.

The sandwich itself is deceptively simple. First, there's the fresh white bap from Béres own bakery, which gets dunked into a tray of 'dip' (really just the juices from the straight-out-of-the-oven pork joints). Since the dip swiftly soaks into the bread, it can make eating the sandwich something of a race against time, as you attempt to finish it before the bread completely dissolves into a porky primordial gloop.

If you ask for the 'works' you'll get a huge pile of freshly cut pork that's pink, rather than white. This gives it a softer texture than the sometimes dry, mealy meat that you get when you cook a pork joint at home. Béres' joints are traditionally cured and cooked in gas-fired ovens, which makes the meat fantastically succulent. It also means that the crackling that crowns the sandwich is crunchy and crisp, but won't leave you requiring emergency bridgework. In contrast, you'll also discover a thick smear of soft sage and onion stuffing, plus a huge dollop of homemade apple sauce. It's this rich combination of flavours and textures that make this more than just another meat sandwich. Each one comes wrapped in a simple paper bag, usually festooned with sticky pork-fat fingerprints, as much a symbol of the sandwich-maker's art as the unique impressions that Nick Park's hands leave on Wallace and Gromit.

Even now, the very sight of Mr Béres' shopfront is enough to trigger a Pavlovian response. And no trip to visit my family is complete without a round-trip into town to score a bagful. My only regret is that my Jewish and vegetarian friends will never know the wonder of Mr Béres. Even if trying to convince them would be as futile as telling a lesbian that she just hasn't met the right bloke yet. You can keep your fancy gourmet sandwiches, made with artisan granary bread, sprigs of rocket and a drizzle of unicorn spunk. I'll have a Jumbo pork sandwich with the works. And I'll see you in the cardiology ward.

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