In which we discover that castles can move, unicorns can be vicious, trolls aren’t cautious and that you should always be prepared to give away a sandwich. A tale of stolen princesses, moving castles of precious metals, trolls, ravens, jealous brothers, waters of life & death, dragons, a unicorn, a lindworm, wild creatures and a golden ball.
Cinderella is More a State of Mind
So what did you think? We have moved countries but you might have noticed there is still a touch of the Cinderellas hanging around although we now have a male protagonist. The Ash-Lad could be Cinderella’s brother. He is considered only fit for the meanest tasks like tending the fire. Indeed in this story we never learn his actual name. He has two mean and jealous older brothers and he overcomes many odds to reach his happy ending. He’s only missing the stepmother and he gets the princess rather than the prince.
Hard Work, Cleverness & Courage
The Ash-Lad is a much loved character in Norwegian folk and fairy tales, overcoming the odds with cleverness and trickery and the assistance of various characters to demonstrate the moral that hard work, cleverness and courage are all you need to do well in life . He outwits older brothers, kings who don’t want fulfil their promises and trolls and other magical creatures. If you want to listen to another tale where the king is outwitted you could go back and look my earlier episode of Jesper and the Hares, it is still one of my favourites and the flapjack recipe is frankly out of this world.
So lets come back to this story, you could definitely argue that it is ATU tale type 510B Cinderella, Marian Roalfe Cox certainly thinks so and she has a whole chapter with 22 examples including a Norwegian one called Kari Træstak which shares at least four tropes with our tale that of Ill-treated hero, helpful animal, slaying of helpful animal, happy marriage. There is also an argument for ATU 301, the three stolen princesses. We can also throw in a reference to Thompson’s Motif-Index of folk literature, this is also an example of B300-B349: helpful animals.
The Trolls in this story are a common occurrence in norse tales, The noun troll has a variety of meanings, namely fiend, demon, and giant, comes from a proto-Germanic word trullan of unknown origin. Most people however agree that troll is usually a catch-all term for mischievous creatures. The Ash Lad is known for his ability to outwit these often foolish creatures even if their size makes them terrifying. If you want to see some wonderful drawings then look up the John Bauer illustrations or the Kay Nielsen illustrations from East of the Sun, West of the Moon which also has gorgeous depiction of other mythical creatures. Sadly there are less beautiful illustrations in Tales from the Fjeld that this story comes from.
Unicorns – A Cautionary Tale
I would also like to look at the unicorn in this story. I have long been very loud in my opinions that unicorns are not delicate mystical creatures but horses with a sword on their nose, to quote Terry Pratchett. Anyone who has had to deal with a large angry horse should be terrified that there might be a version that could stab you through the heart rather than just trample you or kick you resulting in possible bone breaks or crush injuries. I love horses but they are still wild creatures underneath and also sometimes not very bright, imagine that with a horn that could pierce bone. I feel the fact that this unicorn eats pig and ox carcasses and would happily have eaten our hero proves my point somewhat.
We must be moving along now as we haven’t even talked about the magic sword and the strength potion or the dragons or even the magic ball of thread. The dragons are very useful for transporting useful items belonging to the hero and for relocating mobile castles. The strength potion needed for the bearer to wield the magic sword appears in the the Three Princesses in the Blue Mountain as well and is used in the same way to defeat trolls with many heads.
Spinning A Tale
We don’t have space here to properly examine the ball of thread metaphor in the story but the expressions surrounding thread in folklore are fascinating. Have you ever considered that we spin a yarn or weave spells as though creating something of value from barely as wisp of nothing. The thread here is a pathway or line to follow for our hero. He is following the steps of ancient heroes like Theseus who followed the thread out of the labyrinth of the minotaur. We could also consider the Ancient Greek fates, three female deities who determine the fates of humanity, one spins the thread, one determines the length, one cuts the thread as it was a hag who provided our hero with the grey thread.
One of the things that makes this a Norwegian tale is the realistic narrative style, no matter how fanatical the story subject is. The other thing which is characteristic is that the king resembles a Norwegian landowner rather than an all powerful monarch of legend with lands that never end. The original illustrations of the tales were also a bit more down to earth adding a touch of Norwegian realism. One thing however that is more generalised is that if you treat people with good manners and are generous with your food, even if you have little you will almost certainly be rewarded.
Bread & Cheese
So shall we consider the food? The older brothers are said to eat cheese, meat and bread and Ash Lad only gets the scraps or crumbs. I’m never going down the carcass route again after the Gift of the Magician and we looked at grain in the Legend of Knockmany. So it must be bread, meat and cheese or rather sandwiches. If this had been written after 1762 in England it would have been sandwiches anyway. I’ll get to that shortly. So is there any folklore about sandwiches you ask, well unsurprisingly there isn’t much when you consider how long sandwiches have existed as a concept.
Tenuous Folklore Connections
This means that I get to look at a couple of tenuous folklore connections and you know how much I enjoy that. The first is that hawthorn trees used to be known (and still are in some parts) as bread and cheese because it was thought that the young leaves tasted of bread and cheese. I think it was probably easier to convince yourself of that if you were in time of want or famine. This is however what the colliers at Kingswood, near Bristol, in 1873 resorted to as they marched on Bristol to protest about the export of wheat from the port. Hawthorn lore is fascinating and I could probably write a blog about it alone, so I’m going to look at the folklore of bread which is a slightly less tenuous link to sandwiches.
Good Friday Bread
The folklore of bread is also a very deep seam to mine so I thought we shoukd concentrate on just a few superstitions of the British Isles. Firstly as it is nearly Good Friday, a reminder that bread or cakes that are baked on Good Friday are supposed to never stale or mould. It is also said that a hot cross bun allowed to harden and hidden in the eaves will protect the house from fire (just make sure its not baked on Good Friday or you’ll be waiting ages). I will just add here that although the fire protection does sound lovely I’d probably still make sure the smoke detectors had batteries, you know, just in case.
This one isn’t Good Friday specific but it was believed in Wales that when you had an excellent bread rising day, it meant that you were loved and that love can make even the coldest loaf rise with joy. In Scotland it is said that you shouldn’t sing whilst making bread because you will spend as long crying later as you did singing whilst making the dough. The weirdest and slightly bawdiest superstition that I can find was reported by John Aubrey in 1686. This was a ritual to attract a man by making cockle bread. He states
“Young wenches have a wanton sport which they call moulding of Cocklebread; viz. They gett upon a Table-board, and then gather up their knees and their coates with their hands as high as they can and then they wabble to and fro with their Buttocks as if they were kneading Dowgh with their Arses, and they say these words, viz.:‘My Dame is sick & gonne to bed,And I’le go mowld my cocklebread.’”
Apparently this was based on an charm from earlier times when the dough was literally moulded by those more delicate parts and served to the one they hoped would then desire them. I bet using your hands doesn’t seem the messiest option now does it?
Sandwich: Gambling or Office Job?
We’ll now move on to sandwiches and their history although the finest piece of folklore does seem to be that the Earl of Sandwich invented the sandwich so he didn’t have to pause in his gambling. It is generally agreed that The Earl of Sandwich didn’t do a lot of gambling being quite poor as aristocrats go. It is more likely that it was during his exceptional busy days as Lord of the Admiralty that he needed something to eat at his desk. Is it folklore though that he invented the sandwich? It appears not.
Many greater researchers have gone ahead of me on this and no-one can find a recipe for a sandwich before 1773 in The Lady’s Assistant for Regulating & Supplying Her Table by Mrs Charlotte Mason. The first official use of the word was in 1762 according to the OED but the first story about how it was invented was in 1765 in a travel guide, Grosley’s Tour To London. A lot of doubt has been cast on the gambling story as I mentioned but not on the actual sandwich itself.
Sandwich: A Definition
We should consider sandwich history and in order to do that we need to define exactly what a sandwich is. My opinion which is shared by the wonderful food writer Bee Wilson so I feel we can use her definition from her book Sandwich, A Global History:
“two or more slices of bread, or the equivalent in rolls, flatbread or other baked goods, used as a structure to contain a filling of some other food, whether hot or cold, to make a meal, such that no utensils are necessary”
This means that open sandwiches are not sandwiches, if there is no top slice of bread the items layered on the bread are toppings not fillings. That would include the Dutch belegde broodje which no less a person than Simon Sharma insists is a forerunner of the sandwich. This also includes so called sandwiches which have lettuce instead of bread, again not a sandwich no matter how delicious it is.
The First Sandwich
It is very probable that the Passover sandwich (Korech or Hillel Sandwich) from the 1st Century BCE is the first sandwich. According to the “Haggadah, the Jewish religious text setting out the rules for the Seder meal, Hillel took the prescriptions of Exodus and Numbers and turned them into a living ritual. ‘This is what Hillel did when the Temple existed: He enwrapped the Paschal lamb, the matzo and the bitter herbs to eat them as one.’ Matzos then were more like flatbreads so essentially this was a lamb & herb flatbread. It fits our definition but however this type of sandwich, along with falafel stuffed pittas and other similar foods are not culturally related to the European sandwich so this isn’t really helpful in our search.
Sandwich or Edible Plate?
There have been a lot of people who insist that the medieval trencher was the first form of sandwich but really it was hard bread which soaked up meat juices which were often given to servants to eat. I don’t think many people would think that gravy soaked bread slice was a sandwich. There is a really well researched article from 2004 by Mark Morton where he suggests that the usage of ‘bread and cheese’ and ‘bread and meat’ were what people called a sandwich.
This term does appear in plays and writings pre 1772. He uses as his evidence that because bread always comes first that suggests that they were a combination. The problem is that people didn’t necessarily eat them in a sandwich formation, they could have eaten bread then cheese, or cheese then bread or just cheese on bread with no top slice. The same goes for meat. If we use our definition above we could consider that stuffed loaves are a sort of sandwich. I have found excellent early 18th century recipes for lobster loaves, oyster loaves and mushroom loaves. They weren’t eaten in the same way though and were considered a side dish for a main meal, in fact that is the listed serving suggestion.
Credit to The Earl of Sandwich
So we are back to the Earl of Sandwich, he clearly didn’t invent eating bread or meat between two slices of bread but what he did was order it already in that format. That is the big difference and he was the first person to do it as far as we can tell.
In the following centuries to the modern day the fortunes of the sandwich have risen and fallen. They have been stuffed full of extravagant materials and served at balls, served in their original format of beef between bread in the coffee houses of London, made the lives of people who have to make cricket teas miserable and been the ultimate comfort food at every British occasion from christening to funeral even if the only comfort was in their avoidance. Grace Dent wrote a wonderful article in the Guardian about the place of sandwiches in British grief which you can find in further reading. Its wonderful and will make you cry. They have been our choice of food at our office desks since M&S launched the packaged sandwich in 1980.
To Mayo or Not To Mayo?
I’m not snobby about packaged sandwiches, sometimes they are exactly what you need but I do prefer my own. I think thats because I like a simple sandwich with the best ingredients of its kind even if those are fairly cheap ingredients. I used to get ham from a butcher that made his own. It was sensational and melted in your mouth, the extremely thin slices just needed to be piled up with a touch of mustard and mayo between fresh wholegrain bread.
Mayo or butter is another contentious sandwich issue. I personally can’t have both on a sandwich, its either or for me. I do prefer mayo for nearly all sandwiches but thats probably because my butter is always too cold and tears the bread. Mayo is easier. I’m also going to invite controversy and say that Polish mayo is the best, it just is.
Sandwich: The Runner-Ups
So I imagine you know now that you’re getting a sandwich recipe. I had to decide between three and it basically came down to availability of ingredients for people outside of this area although if you’re ever visiting the Black Country I’d still recommend trying them out. My discarded sandwiches were a pub cheese & onion cob. A cob is a white roll which has a crispy outside and a soft middle.
A pub cheese and onion cob or corned beef cob (if you are more adventurous) is at its best having sat on a cling filmed plate for a couple of hours under some cling film. The cheese must be so sharp that it makes the roof our your mouth itch and the onion should be strong enough to strip your palate. The outside of the cob will now be chewy rather than crisp and its the perfect snack after a couple of pints along with some scratchings.
The other discarded sandwich uses the same bread but it must be buttered and filled with orange chips. These are a Black Country specialty of a very thin batter that coats the chips so the outside is crispy and the inside is fluffy. The chips should have been salted and vinegared and if they can be purchased from a back street chip shop in Tipton and eaten in my Nan’s kitchen then so much the better but this is not essential. Its a good job I suppose as neither the shop or the house still exist.
Sandwich: The Winner
The winning sandwich candidate is a tomato sandwich. The bread must be good and I prefer wholegrain but you can choose your own preference, then toasted until fairly crunchy. The tomatoes must be really good, there’s no hiding here so this is essential. They need to smell of tomato which is possible even with a supermarket one but not outside of the summer. The mayo must also be excellent but can still be shop bought. The only other ingredients are freshly ground black pepper and flaky sea salt. The instructions are below just in case but I think you know what you’re doing. If you live in the UK, I’d either get Isle of Wight tomatoes from the tomato stall website or wait a couple of months.
Two slices of your favourite substantial bread
1 tasty tomato
1 tblsp good mayo
Salt & Pepper
- Toast bread until crunchy
- Slice tomato
- Spread mayo on both slices of toast
- Put tomato onto toast, season & add top slice of toast
- Slice into two triangles
Morton, M. (2004). Bread and Meat for God’s Sake. Gastronomica, 4(3), 6-7.
Alan Davidson and Tom Jaine (2014). The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford University Press. p. 712.
Wilson, Bee (15 October 2010). Sandwich: A Global History. Reaktion Books.
Norwegian Folk tales from the collection of Peter Christen Asbjørnsen & Jorgen Moe Ilustrated by Erik Werenskiold & Theodor Kittlesen translated by Pat Shaw Iversen & Carl Norman
City & Country Cook, Charles Carter 1732
The Lady’s Assistant for Regulating & Supplying Her Table, Mrs Charlotte Mason, 3rd edition 1778 (original edition 1773)
The Art of Cookery Made Plain & Easy, Hannah Glasse, 1751
The Complete Housewife or Accomplished Gentlewoman’s Companion, E Smith 1773
The Experienced English Housekeeper, Elizabeth Raffald, 1786
A New System of Domestic Cookery, Maria Rundell 1810
The London Art of Cookery, John Farley, 1811
The Cook & Housekeeper’s dictionary, Mary Eaton, 1822
The Cook & Housewife’s Manual, Mrs Margaret Dods 1826
The French Cook, Louis Eustache Ude – 1829, 10th Edition with appendix
A New System of Domestic Cookery, Maria Rundell 1842
The Modern Cook, Charles Elmé Francatelli 1846
The Cooks Guide, Charles Elmé Francatelli, 1863
A Guide to Modern Cookery, A Escoffier 1907
The Modern Cook, Charles Elmé Francatelli 1911
Pot Luck or the British Home Cookery Book 1915 May Byron