It’s Saturday again and that means your usual food-themed I·ATE article is here to make your mouth water and to make you start craving food from all over our beautiful EU.
This week we are exploring the world of the grilled cheese sandwich, a popular snack which comes in many different varieties across Europe, and one that can be enjoyed at different times of day: some might have it for breakfast, but it is usually a big success at brunch!
Let’s start with the most famous one; croque-monsieur is typical in European French-speaking countries, especially France and Belgium.
For sure you have already heard of this rich sandwich. Traditionally, it is prepared with boiled ham between slices of bread, then topped with grated cheese and baked in an oven or fried so that the cheese topping melts and forms a crust.
Its culinary origin might come, as in many cases, from a mistake or an unexpected event; in this case, the tale dates back to the year 1901 and is set in a Paris brasserie. Apparently, the chef ran out of baguettes, and in order not to disappoint his customers, he took a loaf of pain de mie (similar to American sandwich bread), sliced it, placed ham and cheese between the slices and baked it to crispiness.
The origins of the name are from verb croquer (“to bite or crunch”) and the word monsieur (“mister”); according to some kitchen stories, the word monsieur is included because the first to offer it was a Parisian bistro in 1910 calling it “a bite for the men”.
A “lady version” (but by name only!) is the croque-madame, whose preparation is the same, but with the addition of a fried egg on top.
A similar, but less famous version is called Welsh rarebit, also known as Welsh rabbit.
Despite the name, this dish does not contain rabbit meat at all; its basic ingredient is toasted bread, on which a savoury sauce of melted cheese is poured, and various other ingredients are added.
The name “Welsh rabbit” has its explanation in folk etymology: according to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘Welsh rarebit’ is an “etymologizing alteration. There is no evidence of the independent use of rarebit”. The word rarebit has been first recorded in 1725, and has no other use than that in “Welsh rabbit”.
Portugal has its own take on the classic with Francesinha. The famous bread is typical from the area of Porto and its surroundings; the tradition says that Francesinha was invented in and around the 60s by a returning emigrant from France and Belgium, who tried to adapt the croque-monsieur to Portuguese taste – which meant, in this case, adding a lot of different ingredients to the dish. In fact, in Portugal you can have your bread layered with pork, smoked sausage, bacon or beefsteak and topped with a fried egg and cheese; although these are usually the servings, there is no standard way to create a Francesinha.
Although it is garnished with a beer sauce, the real ingredients of the sauce are secret; generally, it is tomato based with different degrees of spiciness.
If we travel back to central Europe we can find Strammer Max, a traditional name applied to various sandwich dishes in German cuisine. Again, it consists of a slice of bread covered with ham and fried egg; of course, cheese can never be left out and it is often served with some tomatoes on top!
Last but not least, a useful tip for those who are travelling to Italy: in any Italian bar or café, if you ask for ‘toast’ you will be inevitably served with a croque-monsieur style dish. In fact, ‘toast’ in Italy consists of two slices of toasted bread, usually filled with ham and cheese, while a single slice of toasted bread is simply called… una fetta di pane tostato!
- The Guardian, Porto’s francesinha sandwich is a gut buster, by Kevin Gould, August 8, 2016, available here (consulted on February 1st, 2018)
- ouialwayshaveparis.com, Tracing the History of the Croque Monsieur Sandwich, , available here (consulted on February 1st, 2018)
- Wikipedia, Francesinha, available here (consulted on February 1st, 2018)
- Wikipedia, Strammer Max, available here (consulted on February 1st, 2018)
Written by Carolina Quaranta – Schuman Trainee at the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament. Completed a Master in Public and Political Communication in the University of Torino, Italy; communication specialist and journalist.