If you ever go to France, you will meet the jambon-beurre. Like most French food, the sandwich is both simple and luxurious: A fresh baguette—usually the long, skinny ficelle—sliced lengthwise, spread with Euro butter on both sides, and dressed with a few thin slices of ham folded somewhat labially into the breadslot. Cheese options typically include Brie, Camembert, or Gruyère. Occasionally, there are cornichons. Very often, there’s no cheese or pickles, and it’s literally just butter and ham on bread.
The dumbfuck American hamburger only recently “usurped” this classic peasant lunch in terms of its popularity in the country, but it still stands as France’s (other) answer to fast food. Delicious, fast, cheap, portable. If you go to a cafe or bistro in Paris and they don’t have jambon-beurre, then you need to leave.
Not counting Le Pichet downtown and Café Presse on Capitol Hill, which serve a more deluxe, sit-down jambon-beurre experience, I know of only two places to get a respectable grab-and-go version of this sandwich: Ken’s Market/Marketime Foods in Greenwood/Fremont, and the opulent Central Market chain of supermarkets for rich people, which includes Ballard Market.
I tested the jambon-beurre at Ballard Market last weekend, and it was impressively Parisian. The store does a Brie version with Jambon de Paris (per tradition) as well as a Gruyère version with Black forest ham, both thickly buttered—I favored the Brie one slightly.
Here’s what I love about this sandwich—aside from the fact that it’s just bread covered in fat, stuffed with salted meat, and then garnished with more slabs of fat, which goes without saying.
1. This is a finely constructed baguette. It’s broader than a ficelle, but I like that for fat distribution reasons. You’d think the filling would make it too fatty and greasy, especially with no mustard or pickles to cut it, but great bread is the key. This baguette is dense but pliable. The crust is delicate but a little snappy, like the shell of an M&M. It’s got that resistance and chewiness, but it doesn’t fight you. The whole experience should be like a tango, where you and the baguette can step into each other’s spaces, push and pull, give and take. You’re interacting with the baguette here; it’s a beautiful dance partner that you can eat at the end.
2. It’s so, so buttery. They use Plugrá butter, which, though made in the U.S.A, is crafted in the European style with 82% butterfat (normal American butter is only 80% fat), and they use a shitload of it. Butter does something transformative to a baguette, like, chemically. Okay, I made that up, but when I eat this sandwich, I imagine butterfat saturating each microscopic breadcrumb, and then more butter saturating each brand new breadcrumb created by each of my chomps, until the whole thing polymorphs into a new creature. Butterfat alchemy.
3. With many sandwiches, toppings tend to overwhelm the bread’s flavor, but not here. Everyone’s working together in this sandwich. Now, I ate every bite of the Gruyère jambon-beurre, so don’t get me wrong, but the Brie incarnation is a more harmonious production because Brie and butter are so closely related. Gruyère has some funk to it and tends to argue, but Brie and butter are cousins, or maybe loving stepsisters. They support each other here. As a result, the upscale ham and the flavor facets of the baguette have room to shine on their own.
4. French ham! The thing about Jambon de Paris vs. American ham is that, with obvious exceptions, we process and inject and soak and pulverize and reassemble the living shit out of standard deli ham in this country. I wouldn’t bury a regular American deli ham in my garden, for god’s sake—it’d poison the worms. Jambon de Paris, although deboned and trimmed, is brined in vegetable broth and flavored with juniper, coriander, cloves, and a bouquet garni. The cut of meat stays intact and doesn’t get all deporkified. It’s uncomplicated and rustic and has more fat. It’s also aged, unlike most American hams. There are flavors and smells. You get that hint of wild boar every other bite or so.
It’s been a minute, but if I remember correctly, the Ken’s Market/Marketime version of the jambon-beurre is perfectly lovely and harmonious as well. It has a little less butter and is on different but comparably beautiful bread—theirs is closer to the skinny ficelle baguette. You’re in safe hands with either store.
No matter where you get it from, this jambon-beurre is more than the sum of its parts. It’s the ideal summer afternoon lunch—classic, unmessy, a little decadent. Stick it in your purse with the end poking out like a cartoon French person and take it to a park. Eat it with a ripe peach and something light and bubbly and feel like you’re on vacation.
1400 NW 56th St
Seattle, WA 98107
Central Market Shoreline
15505 Westminster Way N
Shoreline, WA 98133
Central Market Mill Creek
15605 Main St.
Mill Creek, WA 98012
Central Market Poulsbo
20148 10th Ave NE
Poulsbo, WA 98370