Ham Rolls in Clingfilm

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.

Snacks to Beer: the kebab!


Yes, this is the big one.

Kebabs are intrinsically associated with beer in many European countries. We don’t know about Germany where the vertically-grilled doner originated, but in Britain, they’re more-or-less only eaten by drunk people.

They’re different all over the continent, of course. In Germany, they favour a fluffier, lighter ‘fladenbrot’. In Britain, it’s usually a boring old pitta bread. Our local is run by Mauritians, though, who (weirdly) do the best naan breads in London, which is what they use as the base for their kebabs. That’s covered in grilled meat, stacks of veg, yoghurt and lethal chilli sauce.

When it’s done, you’re left with a polystyrene box full of bright red grease.

We know kebabs are bad for us, but that doesn’t stop us craving them from time to time. For the sake of our hearts, though, we’ve learned to make a slightly healthier version at home.

Here’s the recipe.

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Pretzels — the definitive recipe

I’ve been trying to work out how to make proper German-style pretzels for a couple of years now. They’re just perfect with a pint — filling, salty and, well, German.

Today, I finally nailed it.

There are lots of recipes around and I tried most of them, but none quite seemed to do the trick. The texture was never quite right – it should be chewy on the outside and fluffy in the middle. Our recent trip to Germany only made me more determined to crack the problem — I couldn’t bear the thought of waiting until our next holiday to have another pretzel!

Boak did manage to find authentic pretzels in a German bakery on the Brompton Road and it was inspecting one of those that helped me perfect my recipe.

Almost any fluffy white dough will do. The tricks are all in the finishing. Specifically, the shape you roll the dough into before you make the famous pretzel shape; the fact that you boil it before baking; coating it with a solution of bicarbonate of soda [UPDATE: use about one level teaspoon of bicarb]; and slashing the top with a knife.

Recipe after the jump.

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