Whenever I find myself in a shop selling sandwiches – usually an airport departure lounge – I’m useless at trying to choose which to have. But there is one filling I discard immediately; cheese and ham.
As a filling, cheese and ham is as boring as a room with magnolia walls and ceiling. It’s a dull combination, like exposing your taste-buds to the equivalent of the pub bore (2021 update: the social media bore). It’s a snore-inducing filling, especially as the types of cheese and ham generally used in sandwiches have nil personality. When processed ham and cheese turn up in sandwiches at wedding buffets, all the other finger snacks huddle in a corner sniggering at the clueless couple who turn up at a do looking drab.
And they are what you find in nearly every hiker’s pre-made picnic, along with water, a small carton of juice, an apple or orange, and maybe a biscuit if you’re lucky.
We’ve had hiker’s picnics made up for us by small and medium-sized hotels in numerous countries across Europe. Some of these have been boutique hotels which have set us up for the day with breakfast buffets displaying all manner of local artisan cheeses and cured meats – Brie with wild boar chorizo … yum. And then what do we find when we unravel the aluminian foil midway along the trail? A slice of processed cheese and ham, usually enclosed in a baguette-type roll of such crustiness, taking a bite is akin to introducing your gums to a member of a Glasgow razor gang.
I honestly couldn’t count how many ham and cheese baguettes we’ve consumed on the trail. To be fair, by the time we close hungry gobs around one during a decent yomp across pastures new, they’re very welcome despite being over familiar. But, outside of the hiking arena I don’t want to know them. They are not my friends.
It doesn’t have to be ham and cheese
We’ve eaten so many of these we’re like kids at Christmas whenever we open our picnic packs to find something that isn’t ham and cheese. On Gran Canaria, one hotel owner had made us tuna sandwiches which we devoured with relish whilst sitting on a wall overlooking a field of whispering golden grasses and listening to the hypnotic clanging of goat bells. Except we didn’t get to devour all of them as the hotel owner’s dog had decided to tag along and hit us with that ‘I’m going to die if I don’t have some of your sandwich’ look. So she got half.
On Corsica, the Bad Boys of Olmi Capella also made us tuna sandwiches, along with two carrier bags full of other stuff. There was so much food we had to dump half of it in a bin as soon as we were out of sight. The problem with their tuna sandwiches was they’d drenched them in mayo. After four hours of walking in 30C, the sandwiches were a health risk, but we ate then anyway … and brought them back up again half an hour later.
On Santo Antão, one of the Cape Verde islands, our guide Hetty supplied the picnics; the leftovers of whatever she’d prepared the previous night for her dinner. One day we ate cachupa – the country’s unofficial national dish. The next it was a savoury rice and beans mix. These were like the hiking version of a Michelin star picnic compared to poor old cheese and ham.
But these are rarities. In over a decade of walking across Europe, I struggle to remember many pre-made picnics that didn’t include a cheese and ham sandwich.
Sometimes we get to go freestyle; on those occasions when we’re scouting areas and hotels as being potentially suitable for a walking holiday, and hotels aren’t used to providing picnics. At these time we stock up in the nearest supermarket: water, juice, crisps, cereal bars, bread, and … drum roll … ham and cheese.
Well, slices of ham and cheese don’t melt after hours in the rucksack being zapped by a warm sun. And it’s easy to put a sandwich together with them in the field.
If possible, we do replace the processed ham with serrano/presunto/speck/prosciutto, so I’m not a complete hypocrite.