"Anybody who doesn't include the muffuletta in their list of the Five Most Important Sandwiches In The History Of Life, the Universe, and Everything ought to have his or her head examined." J. Kenji López-Alt
Yesterday when I was talking about salami I kept on coming across references to Muffuletta - a kind of loaded sandwich - American it seemed to me because it definitely looked over the top loaded - or rather filled in this instance.
So today I decided to look it up, and yes it is American but Italian American - which I now realise is a very distinct cuisine. In fact this is even more specific - Sicilian American.
So yes - origins. Well the name comes from a particular kind of bread which is made in Sicily called muffuletto. As you can see, it is flattish. And not very available in America - where the sandwich was created. Or anywhere else for that matter, so people suggest ciabatta, focaccia, sourdough ... That's one school of thought that keeps to the sourdough kind of bread but flattish. And I did see one version that had done it with Turkish bread (see below). Well Why not.
Lots of articles I found seemed to be saying that it was topped with sesame seeds, but if you look for Italian recipes for it there is not a sesame seed in sight. So maybe that is an American thing.
The other school of thought is to take a cob loaf and hollow it out before filling. But more on that in a moment.
Back to origins. There does not seem to be much disagreement for once that it was created in 1906 in the Central Grocery Co. - a delicatessen in New Orleans, by its Sicilian owner Salvatore Lupo. It is interesting is it not that the Sicilians themselves do not seem to have invented it back in Sicily? Perhaps it was created out of homesickness - piling all the Italian things they loved in an over the top American way into a sandwich.
Serious Eats has the best article I have found about the construction of it all - and their completed version is shown at the top of the page. J. Kenji López-Alt, the author of the article, says that there are four main elements to this recipe. I would say five, as I shall explain, if you are going to be a purist. The four elements are the bread, the olive salad, the cold cuts and the waiting - to which I shall return. I would add giardiniera to the list because it's a fundamental part of the olive salad. Yes you can buy a jar in your local supermarket but you can also make it - very easily, so why wouldn't you?
It is so satisfying to make your own pickles. Mind you no recipe is the same it seems to me so choose between the four below, or roam the net for another one. Some require you to leave your vegetables in salt and water overnight. Some not. But they are all supremely easy. I found recipes from Valli Little, Domenica Marchetti/Rachel Roddy, The Spruce Eats and Cathy Barrow/New York Times. Or you could just go for Jamie Oliver's Easy homemade pickle - a giardiniera by another name. The differing colours are down to the vegetables you use and the vinegar too. It all seems very 'please yourself' though. There does not seem to be an 'authentic' version. And such a good way to use up those bits and pieces of vegetables and herbs too.
If giardiniera is a fundamental part of the olive salad, then the olive salad is the fundamental part of the whole muffuletta thing. Having sliced your flattish loaf in half horizontally you lavishly cover the two cut sides with the olive salad and this is really what gives your sandwich the flavour. Then you layer your cold cuts - some kind of salami, some kind of ham and some kind of deli meat like mortadella plus cheese sliced thinly - they generally say provolone and/or mozzarella, but I guess that is up to you. But be lavish.
"like most great and simple foods, it's the magic that happens when you combine these basic elements in a very specific way that elevates the sandwich to true greatness." J. Kenji López-Alt
And not just the physical elements, then you have the very important wait. This is not a sandwich to be eaten straight away. You must wait for the flavours to infuse. Some even say that you should weight it down so that the flavours from the salad go into the bread and the meats. And, I forgot to say, your olive salad is also best made the day before so that its flavours meld together. Then cut and eat.
For the cob version you hollow our your cob loaf, leaving the hollowed out bread for some other purpose, and then spread the wall with the olive salad - I saw ricotta in one recipe however - and then layer as before. Slice to serve. Now this seems to me to be a rather less satisfactory way of going about the whole thing, and much more fraught with the potential disaster of the stuff on the sides caving in whilst you are trying to make the filling.
Apparently it is now - well was back in 2019 - an instagram sensation here in Australia, thanks to its adoption by the A1 Canteen in Sydney. I believe it closed in 2020 due to various COVID factors, but seems to be going again. Anyway the muffuletta is now a thing here in Australia too. It only took us over 100 years. Here's a selection from here and there, some with recipes - Courtney Roulston/Coles, Helen Graves/Great British Chefs and some with just pictures - The A1 Canteen's version and Bon Appétit, plus a Grilled cheese muffuletta from Serious Eats. As I said there are an enormous number of recipes out there. Some people get very hot under the collar about toasting them, and I have to say that on the whole they don't seem to be toasted.
I don't think I had realised until recently how many Italian foods are actually American. I knew about the spaghetti and meatballs, but not the rest. And apparently there is even an American version - well specifically Chicago, version of giardiniera - spicier.
Various people also suggested that it's similar to Pan Bagna - a similarly, but differently loaded sandwich in a baguette. What they have in common I think is the amount of the filling and the fact that it is better having been weighted and left to infuse as it were.
I don't think I shall be making one, it's a bit too much but I can't deny that that olive salad as a base for a sandwich is tempting.