Ham Rolls in Clingfilm

Ham roll on a pub table.

There’s a lot wrapped up — pun intended — in the ham rolls you see on the back bar of a certain type of pub.

Roll. noun. A round individually portioned bread product usually split before eating. Synonyms: bap, cob, batch.

They are not in any sense ‘artisanal’. The bread is usually of the soft, gummy white and processed variety — eight for a pound. The ham is from a packet, pre-sliced, rubbery and pink. If there is butter, it isn’t butter, though you may not believe it. Instead of waxed paper they’re bundled up in clingfilm (US: Saran Wrap) — convenient, certainly, but prone to sweating and squashing the rolls into faintly obscene shapes. And, most importantly, they don’t cost £5 but more like £1, or perhaps £1.50 if they’re especially substantial.

Some variants: the roll might be crusty; there is sometimes mustard, or raw sliced onion; and there might be cheese rolls too — mild cheddar, probably pre-sliced.

This is how we remember pub food when we were kids — piles of rolls like this, kept under plastic covers, and slung across the counter with packets of peanuts, the intention being to soak up beer in the belly, and keep bums on banquettes, pounding pints.

And that’s the point: they are functional accessories to beer, satisfying in their own way but without being a culinary experience.

No-one plans to eat these rolls. They’re a side effect of being in the pub and not wanting to leave for whatever reason, and of the munchies that strike after a round or two. You see them and you just fancy one, just as in the terminal phase of the same evening you might fancy a kebab you wouldn’t touch with a broom-handle while sober.

Fictional book cover: The Ham Roll Pub Guide.
Not a real book from 1975.

In the 21st Century they’re a way for a pub to signal that it is unpretentious but not uncivilised; old-fashioned rather than rough. If you’re going to drink ten pints here, mate, which you’re very welcome to do, then make sure you don’t do it on an empty stomach.

But they’re becoming rare these days as pubs become ever more polarised between haves and have-nots and as environmental health regulations make it harder for a publican to knock up something even this simple without a dedicated food preparation area.

Which is a shame because we’re beginning to think that Ham Roll Pubs™ might be the best pubs.

13 thoughts on “Ham Rolls in Clingfilm”

  1. Today’s useless piece of information.
    In the city of Waterford in Ireland these rolls are known as blaas.
    From t’internet –

    ” It’s said that blaas were introduced to Waterford at the end of the 17th century, by the Huguenots. The world “blaa” is said to be derived from the French word for white, “blanc,” but this theory is disputed.
    Waterford people are obsessive about blaas so when you visit make sure to ask.
    In fact the Waterford people are so proud of their bread rolls that in 2013 the blas was awarded Protected Geographical Indication status by the European Commission. “

    1. Indeed it is and there is nothing ever bad about the quality in my experience. A quality, chewy crust cob, a chunk of decent quality mature cheddar and a big slice of raw onion is a feast for a King! Usually about £1.50 or less.

    2. I remember a pub in Darlington that served Pease Pudding with its ham rolls. Nice too.

  2. I was in an establishment offering the cheese and onion version of these last Sunday – a rugby club right next to Birmingham Airport. The beer choice was unspeakable, but the film-wrapped roll did leave me thinking fondly of the place regardless.

  3. I love them. The last time I had one was a few years ago at the Cross Keys in Harpenden – a pile of them under a glass dome. And you can stuff a couple in your pocket for the walk back too.
    My dad told me a story from north Wales (probably Bangor or Caernarfon) from the 80s. The landlord offered my dad one for free or it would end up just going in the bin as it had been on the bar for a few days. My dad ate it (I would’ve too). The landlord asked him after whether it had been a cheese or ham roll. My dad answered that it hadn’t had either filling – just butter.
    “Either the daft cow’s forgotten to put it in or some bugger’s eaten it” was the reply.

    1. That’s what the clingfilm is there for — to stop people stealing the filling.

  4. In the US–or at least Portland–we got “little smokies.” These were sausages the size of the top two digits of your index finger made of such low grade by products you always had no navigate around bits of bone. They were spicy, almost certainly to cover up the flavor, and stained with some highly artificial red color, which gave them a psychedelicly bloody quality. The bartender popped them in a microwave and charged you a buck. They were, even drunk, objectively gross. I resorted to them only on rarest occasions. Of course I miss them now.

  5. Thanks for the tweet, that’s my place, the Blue Boar in Leicester. That cheddar and onion cob is almost a loss leader!

  6. “No-one plans to eat these rolls. They’re a side effect of being in the pub and not wanting to leave for whatever reason, and of the munchies that strike after a round or two. You see them and you just fancy one…”

    You can re-use that text when you do a feature on pork scratchings.

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