Friends, family, they come and go, quite frankly. But a great sandwich? A carby creation of unencumbered artistry? To revel in alongside a packet of crisps and a tin of pop, whatever the weather? At a cafe, in a restaurant or your front room on a pissing down weekday? This is a level of perfection that truly knows no bounds.
And, suddenly, Manchester appears to be tightly in the grips of a potentially enormous era of butty making brilliance.
Of course, this isn’t to say that the streets have been bereft of sublime sarnies in recent years. Rustica’s Milano alone has been reason enough to venture into town whatever the weather for over two decades. In fact, it should be front and centre of all promotional tourism materials that are designed to convince out-of-towners to visit sunny Manchester.
Katsouris is now over 15 years deep into keeping the Deansgate faithful in piping hot half ciabattas, but until recently, premium bread and filling based perfection was hard to come by inside an M postcode.
Then, miraculously, just as pinpricks of light were beginning to illuminate the end of the covid filled tunnel we had been suffering through for the previous 12 months, a combustion of carbohydrates and cured Italian meats ignited something seminal within the Mancunian lunchtime community.
Sam Gormally and Meg Lingenfelter’s original hole-in-the-wall hoagie hut, operating out of the kitchen of B-Lounge in Piccadilly, took North New Jersey’s predilection for prosciutto and provolone and transplanted it into the culinary fabric of Greater Manchester. Effusive hand gestures and giardinara stained t-shirts were abound for the Sopranos inspired sarnie spot, which then toured Ancoats, first at a shared space with Lazy Tony’s Lasagneria and then at General Stores before…
Fade to black.
After a few months in the wilderness, much like Kevin Finnerty ambling frustratedly through a coma dream, The Bing went the way of Tony Soprano’s ducks, heading south for the winter permanently at the beginning of July.
But whereas once losing the majesty of the muffuletta or the sensational shrimp po’boy would have been a cataclysmic tale of unrecoverable woe, what The Bing had in fact done, in death, was set the table for a new crew of sarnie specialists to thrive.
“Bada Bing were the OG’s. They really started it off for Manchester” says Aanish Chauhan, of Fat Pat’s, another hole-in-the-wall, not too far from where The Bing got their big break (a stone’s throw from Piccadilly down Portland street) that has recently taken the city by storm, paying respects to the double fisted heroes that paved the way for his recent, homemade milk roll encased passion project.
“The absolute G’s Bada Bing smashing it out the park at General Stores started a North West sarnie renaissance” enthuses Lewis, who will soon take over lunch duties at Ducie Street Warehouse with Super Happy.
These sub roll saucepots are not the only duo slathering meats, cheeses, veggies, crisps and christ knows what else between two slices of bread, however. Fried chicken connoisseurs Kong’s slalomed seamlessly into the pockets of Big Sandwich with their arrival at Hatch, ditching birds for butties in spectacular fashion.
Back in Ancoats, The Bing’s old residence at General Stores was, until recently, still heaving with Italian inspired creations as Mira flung their Maradona sized meatballs into their Neapolitan cuzzetiellos and promptly out of the door to a throng of elated (and soon-to-be exhausted) regulars. The creator of these southern Italian behemoths, Mike Swain, was just as enthusiastic about the current state of sandwich in Manchester as his counterparts from Super Happy and Fat Pat’s.
“The food scene in general in Manchester is flying right now, and it’s always inspiring and challenging, so it’s no wonder people are using the sandwich as a canvas to create more good food in the city.”
“There aren’t many foods that are universally loved but the sandwich is definitely one. So there’s always going to be demand for good sandwiches, and the variations are endless.”
But why is it that suddenly The Bing’s influence became so prominent? How had this corner of the market been so threadbare for so long? Manchester is a city in which substantial portions are often required to combat the mercury plummeting climate. So why have these heroes only caught fire over the past year or so?
“I think a lot of inspiration comes from the States with sandwiches like ours,” surmises Aanish, “but during lockdown people just got really creative at home.“
Lewis, meanwhile, believes sandwiches are synonymous with the Mancunian work ethic and general attitude.
“I feel like Manchester never really stops, we’re all grafters here and a good sandwich to me is always synonymous with a well earned lunch break. Or a massive hangover. Both usually require you to put the work in to earn that scran.”
“I think it’s also a return to food that people love and recognise. A move away from the over complicated and more into casual but considered; that’s what we’re aiming for with Super Happy anyway.”
The romance of a great sandwich is as unifying an art form as there is when it comes to cuisine. Or just life in general, to be honest. It can be something as simple or stupefyingly complex as you wish to design it. Maybe it’s a nostalgia inducing tuna mayo on wholemeal, adorned with a series of horizontal Mrs. Elswood gherkin slices. It could perhaps be creamy, crumbly Lancashire cheese paired perfectly with chunky Branston pickle within the confines of a floury farmhouse white. Few salt and vinegar Walkers or McCoys on the side and a tin of something fizzy.
Then again, there is the thrill of a devil-may-care attitude when confronted with an eccentric collection of ingredients in your fridge-freezer. Last night’s leftover lamb karahi, could that go with Sunday’s remaining roast spuds, a blob of banana ketchup, a small handful of those pickled onions aaaaaaaaaaaand…..chicken dinosaurs? You’ll never know if you don’t find out. It could be an unmitigated tragedy of which you never speak again, remembering only through nightmares that awaken you in the dead of night in a cold sweat. OR it could be a glorious triumph, shared proudly like a delightful newborn to social media for your friends and followers to drool over and DM you for the recipe. Which you will never fucking give them. Obviously.
It is this blank canvas approach that the sandwich allows which has allowed for such flourishes of ingenuity from Manchester’s current sarnie slinging collective.
But what do they believe makes the perfect sandwich? What is the magic behind the triumph?
“Balance, balance is everything I reckon,” begins Lewis, “season anywhere you get the opportunity. Vinegar too, man sharpness goes a long way. It’s about having the flavours complement each other, and getting in a range of textures that make every bite engaging. Stuff between bread, there’s a million ways to get it right – but for us it’s attention to detail that makes somewhere outshine Subway or Pret.”
For Mike, the romance of creating something beautiful out of nothing is what draws him like a moth to a flame. Or the light of the fridge.
“I reckon it’s 70% emotion and 30% ingredients. If it’s made with a bit of passion it’ll slap.
“Some of the best sandwiches are thrown together on a whim. You look in the fridge, see a few bits and think ‘oh yeah, I’ll make a sandwich out of that’, and next thing you know you’ve got a monster of a butty staring back at you – the perfect sarnie.”
Aanish, meanwhile, relies heavily on childhood memories for his own variety of inventiveness, which he has been conjuring up round the back of Portland street with his dad Khurshid and sous chef/side man since day one Archie.
“All the things you used to eat as a kid, that’s what Fat Pat’s is all about to be honest. Gotta have the best bread to sandwich nostalgia into though.”
Said nostalgia is currently seeing Pat’s hot honey fried chicken, Philly cheesesteak and double meatball parm sell out on the daily at staggering speed. Likewise, the big fucking boatload of fun Lewis is having in concocting fried mortadella subs, dripping in tangy homemade Buffalo sauce, is demolishing saliva gland across the city. A procession of mobile phones smudged in drool as they open instagram to once again be greeted by an incoming Leviathan of unabashed playfulness and lunacy.
Over at Kong’s, the New York bodega style they have decided on favouring has been a surefire winner. Crunching crisps into chewy, freshly baked ciabattas among all manner of top shelf ingredients is the sort of Frankenstein’s monster situation it’s impossible not to get on board with.
Between Gas Works Brew Bar and Stretford Foodhall, Mira are continuing to take on all comers and appetites of all sizes with their OG cuzzetiellos, as well as some newer, more traditionally presented sans such as the monumental, jawline testing Ndulius Caesar (crispy fried chicken breast, Caesar dressing, ‘nduja, lettuce, tomato). Their lesser seen form, inspired by a holiday to Napoli, initially began life in Manchester staying pretty traditional to the Neapolitan roots from which the idea sprung.
Over time, however, everything from Chinese inspired pork chiu chow and a gochujang broth heavy ramen filled collaboration with RamYum to slow cooked baharat lamb shoulder with za’atar has made its way into Mira’s ‘Cuzzy’s’. With blisteringly good results each time.
The ever shifting variety of sans becoming available to an increasingly enthusiastic fanbase is showing no signs of abating, either. Old faithfuls are still being admired and devoured at Rustica and Katsouris, queues promptly snaking in all directions, while BreadFlower continue their evolution from schmeared bagels to full blown breakfast and lunch offerings in which fillings are sandwiched rather than left out in the open.
Oh, and how could I wax lyrical about floury, doughy delights, crammed with all manner of stuffings without mentioning THAT egg sandwich from Gooey?
One look at it is like staring into a magic eye. Something about it will twig your imagination with each viewing. The Mona Lisa, Edvard Munch’s The Scream and Dali’s The Persistence of Memory are, quite frankly, bullshit in comparison to any pictures of this yolky dreamboat.
Toasted, baked in-house white sliced Japanese Shokupan bread. A yolk, beaming with an amber hue possessing the deep burning intensity of a thousand suns, halved and speckled subtly with black pepper, surrounded by further egg, this time mayonaissed with generous globs of Kewpie.
This is a sandwich of such profound magnificence that one should be preserved in formaldehyde, akin to a tiger shark falling into the crosshairs of Damien Hirst, and displayed forever more in the Manchester Art Gallery.
The dedication to freshly baking various vessels for which to house all manner of nostalgic and outrageous ingredients is, we pray, so much more than a trend. This recent, post-covid momentum shift towards the simple pleasure of the sandwich is an ode to an innocence that has been absent for far too long in restaurants and cafes. Long, LONG, may it continue.