The sandwich is more than a filler. It's a singular meal. Greg Fleming talks to Auckland's sandwich masters who are revolutionising the city's sandwich game.
Soon after he'd been diagnosed with terminal cancer, rock musician Warren Zevon advised people to "enjoy every sandwich".
Great advice - but until recently it's fair to say that here we saw the sandwich as functional food, kids' lunchbox fare, a brown paper bag money-saver. Pleasure wasn't part of it.
While we are worlds ahead of North America when it comes to coffee, we have a lot to learn from them when it comes to sandwiches.
There a great sandwich can define a city - think of Philadelphia's cheese steaks or Chicago's Italian beef sandwiches (thin slices of seasoned roast beef, simmered and served with gravy on a long, Italian-style roll). I went to Philadelphia - in part - to try one of those famed cheese steaks (thinly sliced pieces of beefsteak and melted cheese in a long hoagie roll) and instead fell in love with their other sandwich - the roast pork (roasted pork, broccoli rabe and sharp provolone cheese served on a seeded roll) - queuing up at the famous DiNic's for 20 minutes to get what has been dubbed "the best sandwich in America" and, yes, it did live up to its billing, even if I felt like I needed a nap after eating it.
Thankfully in the last few years Auckland has upped its sandwich game - Pastrami & Rye, Fed Deli, K Rd's Fort Greene and New Windsor's Hare and the Turtle are all eateries that bring a newfound respect to the humble art of the sandwich.
Pastrami & Rye
When Dave Donoghue of Ellerslie's Pastrami & Rye returned from working in delis in New York he looked in vain for pastrami with an authentic New York taste.
He couldn't find it, so he started making his own, opening Pastrami & Rye in 2017.
"It's all about the cure, the smoke, the steam. Our pastrami takes five days to make. We spend much time monitoring it, making sure the brisket is perfect when it arrives, then we cure it, smoke it, steam it, and serve it."
He believes the rapidly evolving sandwich culture in Auckland is partly explained by people travelling more.
Their most popular sandwich is the reuben, old school in the best way - house-made pastrami with swiss cheese and sauerkraut, served on a fresh caraway rye ... you can add Russian-style sauce if you so desire.
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"A lot of people know this sandwich from New York and from TV shows they've seen and they want to try it and, of course, they get hooked. There needs to be the right fat-to-salt-to-sauce-to-cheese-to-pickle ratio. Too much filling makes it feels like a novelty; too little feels like salad and bread."
That New York deli influence extends to keeping wait times to a minimum and making sure Pastrami & Rye's staff creates a welcoming buzz.
"We aim to deliver the ultimate sandwich in no more than five minutes - no matter how busy it is, that's part of the experience. I don't think you should have to wait long for a good sandwich and coffee. You don't in delis in New York, and I was keen to replicate that here."
Federal Street Deli
But if there's a hero of Auckland's sandwich renaissance, it's chef and restaurateur Al Brown, who brought New York's Jewish deli concept to Auckland when Federal Street Deli opened in 2013.
Many cite Fed's chicken sandwich as one of Auckland's finest - but their turkey on rye is my go-to: shaved smoked turkey, wholegrain mustard and mayo, rocket, cranberry relish, smoked cheddar with chopped walnuts and sliced apple for crunch - a perfectly proportioned sandwich with each layer delivering great flavours and interesting textures.
Brown has his own views on why establishing a sandwich culture here took so long.
"I think as a country, we grew up eating a lot of pretty average sandwiches. School lunches of soggy tomato and iceberg lettuce or a lick of Marmite with a sliver of cheese hardly set us up to embrace this culinary creation. I believe a sandwich was looked upon mainly as a filler ... two slices of cheap white bread were merely a vehicle to hide a minimal amount of some other flavour but I believe now that we are beginning to understand how wonderful a sandwich can be - especially around getting the ratio of the filling-to-bread just right - and we will continue to embrace the visibly strong and exciting sandwich culture here in New Zealand."
Brown's well aware of how food, no matter how simple, can create and evoke memories.
He vividly recalls a sandwich from his childhood - "a warm wild boar sandwich purchased from a nondescript truck stop on the right hand side heading towards Taupo on the Napier-Taupo road. It was a simple affair ... delicious, well-seasoned wild boar, between two decent slices of thick white bread, a lick of mustard and apple sauce."
But to make a sandwich memorable, Brown believes many things need to cohere.
"Rule number one, for me, is all about the bread you are building your sandwich with. Firstly it's got to be fresh. Secondly you should be thinking about the filling that you want to contain between the two pieces. If the filling is relatively dry - think cold cuts of meats and slices of cheese - you can get away with thinner slices of bread. If the filling is wet - think meat balls, pulled pork, burger patty - the bread you are using has to be thick enough to handle the moisture without the sandwich falling apart midway through munch out. Wetter ingredients require stronger thicker and tougher options to handle the moisture - ciabatta, sourdough rolls, baguette ..."
The problem is that bread, which is essentially flavourless, dumbs down the flavour of the ingredients within nut there are tricks to get the flavour to pop.
"First of all, butter the bread. Don't skimp here; try to use a great local butter like Lewis Road, your sandwich will thank you for it. The next critical ingredient or ingredients to help balance the eating pleasure is by adding a pickle of some sort, a relish, a chutney, a mustard, good-quality mayonnaise. This addition of vinegar, salt, sugar, fruit and spice elevates a sandwich to a thing of absolute culinary deliciousness. What bread does do beautifully is, not only hold all the ingredients in place while eating the sandwich, but it also brings texture to the eating experience, something that I believe is often overlooked and brings so much to the eating proposition."
Hare and the Turtle
Another spot pushing the Auckland sandwich scene forward is Hare and the Turtle - a small corner shop in New Windsor, which opened in 2017.
I've lost count of the times I've driven across town for their "Daisy" beef sandwich - beef cheeks slow-cooked for 20 hours and flavoured with juniper, onion and butter.
"You have to have flavour bombs," says co-owner Aletheia Elder. "Season right, slice your meat fresh, make your own fillings and sauces … no one wants something they could have bought at the supermarket. We make our own buns so that we don't have to charge an arm and a leg. Our sourdough for the Daisy and grilled cheese comes from Bread and Butter. Because it's organic, it's yum and coming in to a dead starter is something I only want to deal with in my nightmares."
The Daisy was a result of wanting to do something a little different.
"Everyone is doing reubens at the moment. And The Fed already has that covered. So I did some research and because I wanted edam in it we used a Dutch recipe which has onions, juniper, bay, clove and apple cider vinegar as a base. It has changed so much since we opened, now it's not on a bun because it was too sloppy and it's got pickle sauce, pickled onions and horseradish mustard. It's a great testament to never resting and always trying to do better … You can always do better."
Fort Greene might be named after a neighbourhood in Brooklyn, New York but its most popular sandwich - The Fish One - was inspired while owner Liam Fox and partner Andrea Mulhausen sat eating fish and chips at a pub across the road from the London museum in 2012. It's not hard to see why it's a best seller - house-cured and smoked kahawai, cut into fingers, crumbed and fried to order and served with mushy peas, tartare sauce and pea feathers on their own rye sourdough.
Fort Greene makes everything possible it can in house, their bread of course, but also their bacon, which is dry-cured and smoked on the premises.
Fox says that Fort Greene sees itself more as a homage to the sandwich, rather than anything specifically American.
"What we do take from the Americans is a desire to see sandwiches as more than just leftovers for lunch. In New York no one will think twice about having pizza for breakfast or a sandwich for dinner.
"If you're ever unsure of what to eat, at any time of day and you have some bread, what do you do? You make a sandwich. That's what we're about - pushing the boundaries of sandwiches. Any meal can be a sandwich and any sandwich can be a meal."