I’d never been a sandwich girl—until my first visit to France. That was when I realized that there’s no other French “fast food” as simple and as widely adored as something delicious between two slices of bread. Good baguette, an assortment of charcuterie, strong mustard, and salted butter are all readily available and fairly inexpensive no matter where in the country you find yourself, meaning an excellent sandwich is never out of reach.
When we visited my in-laws, my belle-mère quickly threw together sandwiches for a post-hike picnic. Between winery visits in Bordeaux, we ducked into a tiny boulangerie to see if they could make ham sandwiches, which we ate while sitting on the banks of the Gironde river. And as my husband and I left his parents’ home in the Dordogne to visit some friends a few hours away, his mom tucked a couple of baguettes slathered with butter and stuffed with dried sausage into a bag and handed them to us before we drove off. Pulling into a rest stop and sitting at a picnic table under the trees, I savored every bite of my saucisson-beurre. I’d been converted.
To recreate some of this bread-based magic at home, read on for the four French sandwiches that have earned a solid place in my heart, and the hearts of French people everywhere.
Perhaps one of the most iconic of all French sandwiches, the classic jambon-beurre (ham and butter), is a popular choice that can be put together in a matter of seconds. For a traditional jambon-beurre, all you’ll need is:
- Half a baguette (or the skinnier ficelle size)
- Salted French butter
- Jambon de Paris, a gently seasoned ham with a more delicate flavor than its American counterpart
Since the ingredients are so minimal, choose the best quality ones you can find. But they don’t have to be French (regular salted butter and Black Forest ham can work just as well—just avoid honey glazed). Slice the baguette lengthwise, spread with softened butter, and add a few slices of ham. Voila, lunch is served! For a fancier version, check out this recipe, which includes sliced Gruyere and a bit of Dijon mustard.
Similar to the jambon-beurre is the saucisson-beurre, where the ham is replaced by thin slices of saucisson sec, dried cured sausages. The assortment of cured sausage available in France is staggering; you’ll find everything from duck, wild boar, pork sausage made with cepes (porcini) or walnuts, and even sausage made from donkey meat. In the U.S., nearly any kind of dried sausage will do—even salami in a pinch. Slice the sausage thinly, otherwise it will be tough to bite though. Just like the jambon-beurre, you’ll slice half of a baguette lengthwise, butter the bread, and add as much sausage as you like.
My Parisian neighbor got a twinkle in his eye when we started talking about one of his favorite lunches: the pâté-cornichon. This sandwich features pâté de campagne, a rustic preparation of different cuts of pork ground together and cooked slowly with herbs and spices. Its high fat content makes butter unnecessary in this sandwich, and the addition of tiny pickles (also known as gherkins or cornichons) provide just the right amount of acid to cut through the fat.
Slice half a baguette lengthwise but don’t cut all the way through, so it opens like a book. Place a few generous slices of pâté across the bread, then add sliced cornichons on top of the meat. Close the bread and press down so that the filling spreads out and the pickles get pushed into the pâté. If you want, pair this with a glass of wine and, as Anthony Bourdain would say, enjoy the tasty porky goodness.
The pan bagnat is my personal favorite, not just because it’s bursting with flavor, but because it’s a delight to look at, too. Hailing from the Mediterranean coast, the pan bagnat (translated as “bathed bread”) showcases regional ingredients from the South of France. A typical sandwich includes:
- Tuna (preferably canned in olive oil)
- Bell peppers
- Red onions
- Hard-boiled egg
Note that you can change up the ingredients to your liking. Everything gets layered on bread that has been slathered in olive oil (if you like, you can use ciabatta, which is a bit softer than a baguette). This sandwich does best when compressed and left to sit for the flavors to meld together, which means you can make this hours ahead of when you plan to eat it. Paired with a glass of rosé, it is basically summer in every bite.