I don’t know when the cucumber sandwich was invented. I’m guessing they weren’t around in the Regency. The famous English afternoon tea didn’t come into fashion until the 1840s and cucumber is the quintessential English tea sandwich.
The cucumber sandwich is famous in literature for its star turn in The Importance of Being Earnest. Algernon is expecting his Aunt Augusta, the alarming Lady Bracknell, for tea.* Before she arrives, Jack Worthing turns up and eats all the sandwiches. When Lady B complains, Algie’s manservant, a literary forebear of Jeeves, comes to the rescue and says there were no cucumbers at the market that day, “not even for ready money.” I have an image of the man standing around Covent Garden, brandishing a fistful of pounds notes in a vain effort to score some forbidden fruit. (Yes, cucumber is a fruit according to Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge).
I know how to make cucumber sandwiches. I am English and learned at my mother’s knees, along with how to eat marmite and make a nice cup of tea. But, because it’s what I do when I cook, I consulted a book: Great British Cooking by Jane Garmey. What Ms. Garmey has to say about cucumber sandwiches is of no importance –I ignored it. But she did provide me with an Oscar Wilde story I never heard before. Apparently a waitress brought him a plate of cucumber sandwiches that he found unsatisfactory. “My dear,” he said, “I asked a for a cucumber sandwich, not a loaf with a field in the middle of it.”
History does not reveal whether Oscar made his own, but he understood the principle. A cucumber sandwich should be slim, elegant, and deceptively inconsequential. A bit like a Wilde play, come to think of it. So here’s my recipe:
Very thinly sliced white bread (or whole wheat if you insist on being healthy but really, why bother?). I use Pepperidge Farm Very Thin
Good quality unsalted butter
English cucumbers (about† one and a half per loaf of bread)
1. Slice the cucumbers very thin. Put them in a colander mixed up with some† salt, weigh them down with a plate, and leave them in the sink to drain for an hour or two.
2. Wash the salt off and pat dryish with a dish towel.
3. Butter the bread.
4. Put two layers of cucumber slices in each sandwich and press flat with your hand so it all sticks together, preferably without becoming totally squashed.
5. Cut off the crusts (very important). With a big sharp knife cut each sandwich into four – triangles, squares, or strips, your preference.
So how did it go? The guests were charming, appreciative and asked intelligent questions. Many of them bought copies of my books. They seemed to like the sandwiches too. Many thanks to my hosts for putting on a lovely event and providing much delicious food in addition to the CSs.
Back to Oscar. I am a big Wilde fan. The title of my first book is a reference to one of his lines (“I can resist anything except temptation”) and the text itself contains a line swiped from one of the plays. If anyone spotted that daring theft (though I prefer to call it a homage) and can cite it, I’ll send them an ARC of The Dangerous Viscount (which happens to contain a similar homage)
* Earnest has another important tea food reference:
Jack. How can you sit there, calmly eating muffins when we are in this horrible trouble, I can’t make out. You seem to me to be perfectly heartless.
Algernon. Well, I can’t eat muffins in an agitated manner. The butter would probably get on my cuffs. One should always eat muffins quite calmly. It is the only way to eat them.
† If you want exact quantities, buy a cook book. I’m a novelist. I make stuff up.