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.
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.