My wife told me recently that “panini” is a malapropism, being the plural rather than the singular. Think about it: every time you ask for “a panini”, you are in fact requesting several of these inoffensively phallic snacks, or speaking complete nonsense – depending on which way you want to look at it. Either way, you’re giving Italian-speaking café workers an opportunity to snigger at you behind their polythene-gloved hands as they take sundried tomatoes from one Tupperware container, mozzarella from the next, pastrami from a third, and incorporate them into the eponymous white roll.
Not that anyone could be that sad – even though Italian amour propre can be staggering, especially when it comes to the English, whose style every self-respecting Italian intellectual seeks shamelessly to emulate. I well recall meeting my Italian ex-publisher for the first time. We’d arranged to rendezvous at a pub in Kensington, and as I came cycling down the road I saw a man wearing brown corduroy trousers, a tweed jacket, a Viyella shirt and brogues. I pulled up beside him and said: “You must be my Italian publisher,” at which salutation he jumped about a foot in the air, yelping: “But ‘ow deed you know?” I can’t remember if on that occasion Carlo Brugnatelli and I ate panini – but I doubt it, as we were at a gastropub and the ethos of such establishments couldn’t be further from this foodstuff: gastropubs disguise continental European mores in the tweedy fug of the saloon bar, while panini are basically just ham-and-cheese sandwiches by Emporio Armani.
No wonder they’ve taken over the country. There’s this whiff of pseudo-sophistication about them; but more than that, they’re firm, warm and portable, and by some weird sleight-of-mind they allow otherwise health-conscious Brits to ignore that they’re eating a huge chunk of white bread. Not that warmth is intrinsic to the panino; in Italy they’re just as frequently served cold, becoming by the absence of heat and pressure merely a regional variant on the pan-European baguette. Indeed, the Italian colloquialism for a toasted panino is quite simply “toast”, yet another example of Italians’ devotion to lo stile degli inglesi.
Listen, far be it from me to promote any culinary nationalism. Quite self-evidently, as it is to all aspects of culture, so it is even more so to cuisine. Were it not for the Italian POWs who stayed behind after the Second World War and opened ice-cream parlours, cafés and chip shops, entire swaths of Caledonia would be uninhabitable due to the ghastliness of the indigenous diet. (The same is true for the rest of the Union, too.)
No less a thinker than Michael Gove has called for greater emphasis on the narrative history of these islands, and appointed no less a historian than Simon Shawarma-Kebab to smear wholesome dripping on the national Hovis. Shawarma-Kebab would do well to begin with snacking; after all, it was a noble Englishman – the Earl of Sandwich – who invented the sandwich. True, I find it impossible to imagine His Lordship’s eureka moment without recalling Woody Allen’s inspired riff on the subject: “1745: After four years of frenzied labour, he is convinced he is on the threshold of success. He exhibits before his peers two slices of turkey with a slice of bread in the middle. His work is rejected by all but David Hume, who senses the imminence of something great . . .”
But there’s nothing risible about the modern British sandwich, which has done everything in its power to keep abreast with the times by incorporating ingredients, from tandoori chicken to hummus to salt beef, into all manner of breads – seeded, sourdough, pumper-fucking-nickel.
And yet . . . and yet . . . It’ll take more than Gove’s planet-sized percipience to prevent the sense of presque vu we all still have, even when biting into a marinaded fugu with julep and endive on manna. For, somewhere not far from the tip of our collective tongue is a recollection of that national humiliation – the soggy beige triangle of unwonderful loaf, seamed with bilious cheese and garnished with wilted lettuce and E coli. We long to escape the cold misery of the sandwich, just as our valiant forefathers longed to escape Colditz. And so it is, that when we find ourselves at the lunch counter, we cast aside all thoughts of patriotism and call for panini. Lots of them.