Anchovy sandwiches

The life of an impresario is not to be recommended to any of my gentle readers. The money may be good, but you have to hang out with rock stars and stelle del cinema — boorish people who always order the most expensive wine on the list, and trash their hotel rooms. It is the job of the butler in the house of horrors; you will need a large staff to clean up after your charges; and in the meantime you are likely to become the focus of their abuse. And that is before considering the mind-rending fuss of booking dates and transportation. Or the tedium of the court appearances.

From what I can gather, this has always been the way, and was no different in the age of Restoration Comedy. Richard Brinsley Sheridan remains a playwright in the annals of “Eng. Lit.” but in life was probably far more concerned with his property interests along Drury Lane. Shakespeare, too, did real estate on the side, the complex tax-dodging that goes along with that, and was up to his ears in theatre management, along with his rôles on the stage. I wonder how he found time to actually wright forty plays — and not at all bad plays, in my opinion — amid all these distractions. To say nothing of those “sugar’d sonnets among his private friends,” &c. He must have been a monster of efficiency. And not one holiday in Biarritz (so far as we know).

About Sheridan we know more, including his curious gift for creative procrastination. To Shakespeare’s accomplishments he added those of a duellist (it is the best way to dispose of drama critics), and Member of Parliament (as Whig, sadly enough). Plus, coming from Ireland, which in London has always required great skill. He came from a family of impresarios, however (his papa used to manage the Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin, his mama wrote plays and bestselling novels), so was accustomed from birth to the demands.

Too, having eloped at a ridiculously young age, with the ludicrously beautiful Elizabeth Ann Linley (surely gentle reader has seen her portrait by Gainsborough), he needed lots of money. She came with a good dowry, once he got round to marrying her, but that was quickly burnt through (along with the cash and jewellery from a wealthy former suitor). To maintain themselves as apples in London society’s eye (big house; lavish entertainments) poor Sheridan was put to the trouble of writing one smash hit after another. The marriage proved sufficiently tempestuous to run the costs up further. (Both parties made a habit of “falling in love.”) There wasn’t a choice, really: for as an impresario of my acquaintance once explained, it is generally easier to make more money than to persuade one’s wife to spend less. One thing leads to another.

Duelling alone requires much preparation, and quibbling over venue. But Sheridan was a master fencer (as his wife an unforgettable soprano), and a sure winner. As he showed, you don’t even have to kill them — which is icky — just separate the drama critic from his sword and have the pleasure of watching him crawl and beg for mercy.

(Well, there was the one unfortunate incident, in which his aggrieved opponent came at him with the broken remnant of his foil, putting Sheridan in hospital. But that was more embarrassing than painful.)

A master in postponing tasks till the last moment, Sheridan was notorious among his players for leaving them in rehearsal with incomplete scripts. In the case of his play, The Critics, he hadn’t finished the thing, until it was two nights before the opening at the Theatre Royal. He had this memorable character, “Sir Fretful Plagiary” — to traduce one of his rivals — but had yet to decide upon a suitable fate for him. Too, how to dispose of the villainous stage critics, “Dangle” and “Sneer.”

The answer was to lock Sheridan in a room with a couple of bottles of fine Medoc, and a mound of anchovy sandwiches. Also a pen and some paper. He’d be sure to finish, from his need for more claret.


I’m arrested by this idea of anchovy sandwiches. As we are in the middle of the eighteenth century this morning, I would guess the anchovies were salt-pickled as today, and might be pounded into a paste. Contemporary cookery books mention anchovies again and again, as an explosive flavour enhancer, and as a cure for headaches; but I can’t find a recipe for anchovy sandwiches on my shelves. I am, however, informed by a scientific Frenchman that like Roman garum, or Siamese nam pla, anchovies are one of heaven’s glorious nucleotides, when salted: just waiting for a glutamate to set off. The salt is merely a cover for an umami savour they can deliver, big time.

Not from the traditional barrel, but from a small Italian grocery jar, I pulled my wee fillets — in honour of Sheridan, messy life, and the Friday abstinence. My own recipe was simplicity itself. Into the anchovies I pummeled a good dollop of butter, a generous squirt of lemon, a dribble of wine vinegar and dusting of dry herbs. For good measure, this mixture was casually heated in my smallest stovetop pot, then bottled (in my now empty anchovy container) and stowed in the fridge.

That was yesterday. This morning I selected two slices of soft white bread, and spread the compound between them. Thus provided, I set about completing my Idlepost for the day.

Good I declare it (the sandwich if not the Idlepost). Invigorating, quite. And the pot of Assam tea was all very well. But better, I would think, with two bottles of claret.