December is upon us – the month where our national sandwich chains nobly attempting to condense Christmas dinner into a portable format. This year has seen some particularly strong attempts to crowbar festive cheer into our working lunches and a few notable misses. This guide will help you sort this year’s unmissable sandwiches from those best left on the shelf.
Marks & Spencer – Turkey Feast (£3.30)
The perfect example of the route one festive sarnie; two triangles of turkey, bacon, stuffing, and cranberry sauce that promise a taste of Christmas. The bacon is slightly granular, in the way that sandwich bacon is, but it’s a minor quibble as everything else is fantastic. There are proper pieces of turkey breast in there that manage somehow to be moist and pleasantly textured – a Christmas miracle. The secret weapons of Paxo-y sage and onion stuffing and jammy cranberry sauce are well-used, delivering a one-two punch of sugar and nostalgia that does a good job of performing the Great British Christmas Dinner.
Really, this is a fine example of the species and a great place for us to start. It also sums up exactly what makes a Christmas sandwich work: a single roll or wrap isn’t going to accurately simulate an entire festive feast, but we can judge them by how well they evoke the flavours and indeed feelings of Christmas. So, on that note.
Waitrose – Turkey, Stuffing & Bacon Sandwich (£3.50)
Another entry in the classic triangle category that follows the same industry standard pattern as its counterpart from M&S. The first bite reveals too much mayonnaise asserting itself over the other ingredients. The turkey is a little lost in the shuffle as a result but when it does show up it’s dry and chalky against some slightly too processed stuffing. It’s well-known that the turkey has evolved an off-putting dryness to deter predators and when threatened can take on the internal texture of a breeze block. This necessitates some lateral thinking when it comes to sandwich construction so it’s understandable that some turn to mayo. But you’d have to be a real wrong-un to see this oily snowdrift leaking out of your sandwich and feel festive.
Most of the sandwiches featured include the old Belgian ketchup in some form – its essential lubricating qualities being necessary for cohesion and edibility, but you don’t want to let it take over the show. Not a bad sandwich, as such, it’s just fighting too hard to course-correct against the turkey.
Paul – Boxing Day Ham Hock Sandwich (£4.45)
An authentically crunchy Gallic-style baguette spiked with turmeric, wrapped around ham hock, a nice swatch of cheddar slices, some good butter, and little greenery. There’s also a drift of piccalilli – a funny thing for a Frenchie sandwich shop to include as the imperialist neon pickle is a uniquely British perversion but it’s welcome nonetheless. The ham hock has been shredded into piggy confetti and doesn’t always shout quite as loud as the piccalilli or the cheese. However, it’s an overall tasty experience that’s perfectly put together and feels a little more nourishing than most grab-and-go sandwiches. Points must also be handed out for the clever homage to one of the festive season’s great foodie pleasures – the towering leftover sarnies eaten once the big day is over.
In amongst all the attempts to transpose Christmas dinner onto a cob or bap this does sound out as quite different. Do you celebrate Boxing Day in France, our friends across the Channel? If you don’t, you’ve done a great job of approximating how it feels. Chapeau.
Sainsbury’s – Beef Wellington Croll (£3)
One of the few entries to acknowledge the true king of Christmas meats, the noble rosbif. Sainsbury’s dazzling ambitions attempt to express a beef wellington in a handheld format is actually pretty good. It comes on a CrollÔ, which is apparently a sort of roll/croissant mix-em-up that gets you sued if you replicate it. Thin slices of pleasant enough beef sit on a big dollop of earthy mushroom duxelles and some allegedly pickled red cabbage. You’ll search pretty hard for the advertised truffle and chestnut but their sacrifice is nonetheless appreciated. The duxelles is creamy and earthy and makes a good foil for the cow. This one will probably only win on the nostalgia front if you grew up eating Beef Wellington at Christmas – congratulations if you did – but it does win a point for feeling slightly fancier than your standard ‘wich. Solid effort, Mr Sainsbury.
Pret a Manger – Christmas Lunch Baguette (£3.99)
For many, this is the benchmark yuletide sandwich. Pret’s flagship seasonal entry has been joined this year by an extended universe of flatbreads, vegan wraps and toasties (more on that later). Here we find the agreed set turkey menu filled into one of those inauthentically bite-able demi-baguettes – which makes it feel a bit more wholesome and substantial. The turkey is nicely buttery and the stuffing has a pleasant coarseness to it. The cranberries are advertised as being doctored up with Port and orange and have a slightly more grown-up feel than your average.
There’s a bit of a construction issue where all the porkier elements have slid to one end and have to be re-arranged on the fly while manger-ing but we’ll chalk that up to batch variation. The slightly rogue element here is the admirably peppery rocket, which makes a nod to ideas of health and freshness that have nothing to do with Christmas. It’s overall not bad but perhaps a littler under-powered flavour wise. Still a good bet for December lunch on-the-hoof.
Café Nero – Pigs in Blankets Tostati Melt (£4.50)
Never mind what a ‘tostati’ is meant to be, this is a kind of fast-service croque monsieur filled with little chipolatas and studded with dried cranberries. Bechamel duty is carried out admirably by creamy mascarpone – actually quite a clever substitution that shows about the level of respect you’d expect an ostensibly Italian chain to pay a French café classic.
The slight misstep here is that this sandwich hints it will bring to mind proper pigs-in-blankets and it doesn’t quite hit the mark. The bacon is cigarette-paper-thin and so yielding that you’d easily mistake it for ham. As such it fails to replicate the rush of biting into a bacon wrapped sausage – the porcine speedball so decadent we rightly reserve it for Christmas day only. It’s not a total loss however, as the whole thing is satisfyingly cheesy and the dried cranberries on top are a nice way to add balancing sweetness without spreading a layer of cranberry jam on the bread itself. The sausages don’t look like much but they pack a little hint of woody herbs that’s quite welcome. Overall, not a bad shout if you’re cold and looking for something to pad out a much-needed double espresso.
Leon – sNOw Turk*y Burger (£7.25)
Not really a burger and not especially hot so it qualifies nicely as a sandwich for the purposes of this list. The whole thing is built around a vegan patty approximating our favourite seasonal fowl. Which, given turkey’s inherent design flaws, could easily be an improvement on nature’s first attempt. A pretty serviceable bun – brioche without the eggs – clutches a nest of slaw and a slick of sweet cranberry sauce. The slaw is full of root vegetable earthiness with celeriac, cabbage, and mustard. It provides crunch and structure as well as balance for the slightly sweet sauce. Our cheese is that dairy-free stuff so un-meltable that you could use it to heat shield the space shuttle, but you can’t have everything.
The patty at the heart of this typographically challenging menu item is sort of like a cheap chicken burger, which is to say nice and comforting in a synthetic sort of way. It benefits enormously from a shell of crispy breadcrumbs, which have a democratising influence that makes most things 15-20% more palatable. This is a little pricey for what it is but it does feel as though some care has gone into layering up and balancing the various elements and that deserves a nod of respect. Perfect for people who (erroneously) say the sides are the best bit of Christmas lunch.
Gail’s – Christmas Sandwich/Turkey Sandwich (£6)
A bit of a funny one, this. The Gail’s website advertises a Christmas sandwich with turkey and bacon jam but in the Soho location there was no stated connection between this sarnie and Christmas. Anyway, we dive in. Two substantial slices of Gail’s no-waste sourdough let you know right off the bat that this is a more substantial offering – as we might expect from the ritzier location. The turkey is thin-sliced but it’s none the worse for it and tastes nicely buttery with a hint of the smokehouse. Layers of mature Swiss cheese add a tang that speaks to the fermented richness of the bread and the sweet umami of the bacon. Very nice, Gail. Unfortunately, some insistent chipotle forces the question that looms large over this sandwich: what does it have to do with Christmas?
Perhaps there is a part of the world where they eat smoked turkey with chipotle and bacon jam on December 25th – if there is, I’d like to visit – but it just isn’t evocative in the way a Christmas sandwich should be. It’s delicious and wholesome and structurally perfect but you could eat this on any day in August without it calling to mind any Christmas memories. Wait till January, it’ll still be on the menu.
McDonalds – Festive Crispy Chicken (£5.19)
Whatever we might feel about the Americanist mega-chain, it’s a mistake to say the fare on offer there isn’t compelling. The finest minds in food science work tirelessly to make sure the golden arches turn out finely tuned sandwiches that speak to our basest chemical desires. With any luck this Christmas offering will be like a festive version of the Chicken Select, a bit of populist snack voodoo so captivating it could challenge the resolve of the most committed vegan. Let’s imagine this as the inverse of Leon’s faux turkey burger and proceed.
Quite sensible to ignore the existence of turkey here as chicken is for almost all intents and purposes a superior meat. The bacon and melty slice of cheddar are pretty tasty and the chicken falls just a fraction short of the gold standard set by the Chicken Select. The cranberry sauce is so sweet and homogenous you could easily imagine it turning up in an off-menu milkshake or McFlurry but that’s about what you’d expect. It’s totally munchable, but not really very Christmassy, despite what the star-speckled box might insist. Sort of makes you wonder if the brief was ‘whip up an xmas sandwich without changing any aspect of our carefully engineered supply chain’. Not bad for a punt if you’re driving or training home for Christmas and need quick calories to carry you those last few miles.
Pret a Manger – Turkey and Trimmings Toastie (£4.65)
Yes, Pret gets another go around but the sheer breadth of its Christmas menu demands it. This is an unholy mashup of ham & cheese toastie and roast turkey, complete with stuffing and a bit of onion jam doing a pretty good impression of gravy. It’s the sort of thing you’d make for yourself the day after Boxing Day and then pause to wonder if you should actually eat it. Reader, you definitely should. Volcanically hot off the press, its edges form a crispy compound of stuffing, cheese and bread that could take the edge off a level four hangover. There isn’t much turkey but it hardly matters when the rest of the sandwich is so brilliantly maximalist. Once again, the familiar pork sausage and fresh-out-of-the-box tasting sage and onion stuffing is a shot of pure Christmas.
This is the perfect choice for fortifying you during a particularly chilly day of Christmas shopping. It’ll also make a particularly kind of sense to you if you’ve been out for a few sherries the night before. Very impressive.