Dedicated – without permission but with admiration – to Mrs E.S.
I’m not always at the receipt of custom at the shop, you know; on Mondays I have to go to Richmond and there I usually treat myself to an egg sandwich for lunch. Don’t you think there’s something modestly festive about such a thing? Elizabeth David mused over the delicate magic of an exquisitely simple and perfect omelette . After all those years of egg terror we are now told we can eat as many as we like and do ourselves nothing but good. And in the supermarkets the egg sandwich is usually the cheapest option. Nicer to make it at home, though, and then wrap in a parcel of greaseproof paper with a little twist of salt – celery salt is nice – packed separately. Scrambled egg – maybe with a touch of tomato ketchup or a scratching of Marmite or Bovril – can be excellent; but the classic version has to be hard boiled egg, sliced with mayonnaise. My mum used to substitute sliced tomatoes for the mayonnaise and add a great deal of black pepper. On thin slices of brown bread these were lusciously damp and most nutritious. Eggs go good with watercress or sprinkled lightly with paprika. The delicate crunchiness of mustard & cress gives an intriguing contrast of texture. I have eaten anchovy and egg sandwiches at a Kensington cafe: a delicious idea but it didn’t work that well – there was too much anchovy and crusted salt, and the little fishes were not sufficiently drained of their oil so that I spoiled a good tie.
The nicest way is the simplest way. Take your eggs ( once brought to room temperature so that they don’t crack) and bring them to a gentle boil. Cover, remove from the heat and leave for about nine minutes, then plunge into cold water. When cooled, peel them. Now this is the bit that people don’t like. There comes a concomitant eggy smell; to some it is a sulphurous smell, and the longer you wait before peeling the eggs the stronger the smell will be. This puts some workers off bringing them to work for an economical lunch. They are embarrassed to shell them. Take heart! The great Fred MacMurray brought a couple of hard boiled eggs for lunch on the Paramount lot daily: and if he could beg a slice of free bread in the Commissary so much the better. He ended up as one of the richest men in the movies.
Katharine MacDonogh* tells a comical story of Queen Alexandra and her peke that demonstrates perfectly the problem of the egg odour. Alexandra’s dog Togo had died and the lovely Queen who was by this stage becoming increasingly eccentric refused to allow him to be buried: she insisted on keeping the body on Togo’s favourite cushion in the very warm Sandringham boudoir and over a period of days the atmosphere became – shall we say? – “difficult”. When a plate of egg sandwiches arrived one tea time, Alexandra exclaimed,”Ach! They smell just like poor little Togo!” And went into a tremendous fou rire which, so to speak, cleared the air, so that Togo was belatedly laid to rest in the garden.
So: to return to the chopping board. Having shelled those eggs, slice them and arrange on buttered bread and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Then glob a nice big spoonful of mayonnaise on top ( Hellmanns is best but Heinz Salad Cream is piquant) and smooth over. Exquisite simplicity. Maybe a suggestion of red pepper or paprika? Wrap your sandwich in a couple of large lettuce leaves to keep it fresh and then tuck it in your lunch bag. I feel that a decent white loaf – or soda bread – best brings out the eggy creamy flavour. A rough sweet-smelling brown bread tempers the unctuousness of the experience.
Lastly, is there anyone out there who remembers childhood stories – dating at least from the 1920’s – about the Egg-Eyed Sharps? The inspired name comes from a type of sewing needle; the tiny malevolent creatures (more roguish precursors of The Borrowers) lurked behind curtains and above pelmets, spying on human activity with bulbous ovate peepers. If any reader can shed more light – or submit an good ‘n’ easy egg recipe – please write in!
* In her wonderful book “Reigning Cats and Dogs”, Fourth Estate 1999.