There are endless reasons to travel the world, but one always stands out: food. Get Cultured takes you on a journey through cheesy dishes from different cultures (heyo), exploring how they came to be, what makes them significant, where you can find the real deal, and how you can make your own.
Missed last week’s post on saag paneer? Check it out!
Forget what you know about ham and cheese—a croque monsieur isn’t your grade-school sandwich. Most sandwiches keep all of their cheese on the inside, but croque messieurs just aren’t into those kinds of stifling limitations. A gooey concoction of ham, Gruyère, and béchamel sauce, the elegant croque monsieur—“croque” for short—has been enchanting Parisians for over a century.
As one might expect from the romantic Parisian canon, the collective imagination allows for several origin stories. By some accounts, the French staple arose from the humblest of beginnings. In a modern-day twist on the story behind raclette, legend has it that a group of French workmen had packed ham and cheese sandwiches in tins for lunch and left them unattended for a bit. When they returned, hungry, the realization that the “table” they’d left the sandwiches on was actually a radiator hit them like a ton of cheese; they opened their lunch pails to find hot, gooey ham-and-cheese sandwiches. It turned out okay in the end, though—no one stays upset about melted cheese for long.
While that tale has the “Eureka!” factor of an accidental discovery, it doesn’t account for how the dish became so prevalent. A slightly more detail-oriented story, grounded in rough dates and general locations and somewhat less shrouded in the trappings of folklore, picks up the slack. A little bit.
In the early 20th century, café culture in Paris was just finding legs with the middle class. They say that, in 1910, there was a brasserie on the Boulevard des Capucines—whose name may or may not have been Le Trou dans le Mur (“the hole in the wall”)—that encountered a uniquely Parisian disaster one afternoon. That is, they ran out of baguettes. Mon dieu!
But, the story goes, the resourceful chef made lemons into lemonade—or, as the case may be, made a different kind of bread into sandwiches. He’s said to have taken pain de mie, which is similar to white sandwich bread, and put ham and cheese between slices of that instead. It wasn’t as crispy, so he threw it in the oven to give it as close to a baguette-style crunch as he could, and what resulted was a delicious, crisp ham-and-cheese sandwich—a fortuitous consequence of what could have been a tragic, baguette-less après-midi.
Croquer means “to bite,” which is a straightforward enough name origin. The monsieur half is a bit less guessable: The consensus is that a customer asked the chef about the meat, and the chef gestured to the local butcher, saying, “C’est la viande de monsieur” (“It’s that guy’s meat!”). Say it with me—voilà!
Although the croque monsieur likely began as a simple combination of ham, cheese, and bread, it has evolved over the last century. The most popular incarnation, these days, begins with Gruyère and thin slices of ham between two slices of buttered bread, grilled until crispy. After reaching peak crispiness, it is topped with béchamel sauce and grated cheese and broiled for a few minutes. The resulting dish, ubiquitous in cafés across Paris and beyond, is a rich, golden sandwich that you’d be hard-pressed to eat without a fork and knife. The croque eventually gave rise to its egg-dipped American counterpart, the Monte Cristo, and several variations on the original croque continue to pop up on French menus as well. The most popular is the croque madame, so called because the poached or fried egg that sits atop it evokes the image of a lady’s hat.
For a truly Parisian croque monsieur, Café des Phares is the place to go. Not only does it boast a magnifique sandwich, but it also it provides a unique experience: A “café-philo,” the restaurant provides a space to discuss big questions about life and réfléchir en commun (“think together”); it is as stimulating intellectually as it is gastronomically.
Croques don’t have to be far away, though, to be delectable. Stateside, Café Madeleine in the South End of Boston is a great option. And for a homespun version, try this recipe that swaps béchamel sauce for crème fraîche, making preparation less labor-intensive. Bon appétit!