Is this Frome’s best sandwich? [WFJ #40]
A New York classic strikes a chord in this small Somerset town
Welcome to The WFJ’s series on Frome’s hero dishes and drinks. So far we’ve sampled Hesperian’s scampi fries (RIP), Lo Rapitenc’s escalivada, and HydeAway’s negroni. Now though, it’s time for a spotlight on a rather special sarnie.
Sometime in the early-to-mid 1900s, a man named Reuben Kulakofsky sat in on his weekly poker game at Blackstone Hotel in Omaha, Nebraska. He asked the management for a corned beef and sauerkraut sandwich, to which the kitchen obliged but with a few embellishments – Swiss cheese, Thousand Island dressing, and rye bread.1
Later, the sandwich earned a place on the hotel’s regular menu. It won a national award for its novelty, subsequently making its name across the US, landing big in New York, and, eventually, pretty much the rest of the Western world.
Then, and although it might’ve taken the best part of 100 years and a few transformations, in 2021 the Reuben found its way to a little town by the name of Frome.
“I don't think I'd had a proper Reuben when I first started making them, though I've had them since,” Thea Quaddy tells The WFJ. Thea runs Hamper Sandwich Shop, which she opened on Stony Street in September 2020. Four months later, a seed was sown. “It was January the 4th, and we went back into lockdown on the 5th, and it was miserable and grey and raining. My friend used to have a cafe, and he said, ‘do you want a panini grill?’ And I was like, ‘what should I do [with it]?’”
This would become, in Thea’s own words, “the best addition to the shop”. As people made their own tweaks and improvements to the Reuben over its lifetime, there transpired no better way than to whack it in a sandwich press or under a grill. Which shouldn’t surprise anyone – the melting of the cheese, the crisping of the bread, and the gentle softening of the pastrami was unlikely going to make it worse.
Interpretations of the Reuben differ in other respects as well, sometimes due to what’s locally available. Thea, for instance, eschews rye bread for sourdough. “We use Village Bakery (in Rode) one half of the week, and Bertinet (in Bath) the other half,” she says. “You know when it's Village Bakery because I've cut it myself. There's a difference in flavour too.”
Like any good sandwich, Thea says she “definitely starts with the bread” before anything else. In the Reuben’s case, it’s then a matter of pastrami (not ultra-traditional like salt beef but accepted into the Reuben canon nonetheless), sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, and Hamper’s take on Russian dressing. “We make all our dressings and sauces,” says Thea.2 Not dissimilar to Thousand Island dressing, Russian dressing is typically an amalgam of mayo, ketchup, horseradish, and onion, though Thea’s tight-lipped on what her riff entails exactly. It is, after all, literally a secret sauce, and most of what distinguishes Hamper’s Reuben from any other.
Once the Reuben’s assembled, it’s a case of buttering the outside of the sandwich before it goes under the heat. “Because they're so popular,” Thea says, “we make them in the morning and half-press them on the grill with butter, so the cheese is slightly melted and so we can put them back on for four minutes when needed. Otherwise it takes ten minutes, which, when the shop’s busy on a Friday at one o’clock... you have to be quick.”
Thea sells about 20 Reubens a day, making it the most sought-after sandwich at the shop – even more so than the coronation chicken baguette, and just about more so than the New Yorker salt beef bagel.
Delve deeper into Hamper’s menu – which includes things like prosciutto and emmental in an ancienne baguette; a mortadella, globe artichoke, and truffle mayo focaccia; vegan chickpea ‘tuna’ in ciabatta; or the veggie special, a monstrous stack of burrata, pesto, grilled courgette, piquillo peppers, tomato, rocket, and spinach between two wedges of focaccia – and it becomes pretty obvious what Thea’s trying to do here. “I knew I didn't want to have tuna mayo or chicken mayo in a buzzing fridge,” she says. “I wanted to be proud of what I was offering, and use my knowledge of food and flavours.”
Though Thea wouldn’t call herself a chef per se, there’s a lot that years spent working front-of-house for Fat Radish, Bistro Lotte, and a variety of Soho House’s venues – including Babington – can teach you. “The reason I'm confident in flavours and pairings,” she says, “is because I've managed restaurants and worked with chefs in that environment. It's about balance of flavour and texture – my veggie special has grilled courgettes as it's good to have some crunch in there, otherwise it's soft burrata, on top of soft tomatoes, on top of soft pesto, on top of soft peppers.”
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Before Hamper came along, Frome wasn’t exactly over-endowed with items between two slices of bread. Despite, that is, the sandwich being Britain's foremost lunchtime go-to, with the average Brit eating three a week. “Really the only other places you can get a sandwich in town are M&S, Subway, and Greggs,” Thea says. “An M&S sandwich is, what, £3.50 now. Or £4 for a prawn one. And it’s not even filling.”
Perhaps it goes without saying, but Hamper’s sandwiches can cost a fair bit more than that (the Reuben, at the time of – and which has not coincidentally fuelled – this piece of writing, is £6.50). But filling they most certainly are, and, like with the Reuben particularly it would appear, have raised the sarnie from Simple Sustenance to Something To Look Forward To.
Perhaps that’s why, whether we’re talking about Nebraska, New York, or Frome, the Reuben so quickly established itself as the locals’ favourite sandwich.
That’s one theory, anyway. There are at least four other origin stories, each as compelling as the last.
Thea used to make much of her own ingredients from scratch. Even the bagels. Outside the freedom lockdown offered, this is a bit untenable for her, so she tends to buy things in. Suppliers include Longmans in Wincanton, GetPickled, Lo Rapitenc, and Penleigh.