Gorgonzola sandwiches for two thousand, please

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Despite its “feety savour”, the sandwich provided by James Joyce for his hero’s lunch in Ulysses  is the most celebrated meal in literature. Christopher Hirst shares a bite with Mr Bloom…

—Have you a cheese sandwich?
—Yes, sir.
Like a few olives too if they had them. Italian I prefer. Good glass of burgundy; take away that. Lubricate. A nice salad, cool as a cucumber, Tom Kernan can dress. Puts gusto into it. Pure olive oil. Milly served me that cutlet with a sprig of parsley. Take one Spanish onion. God made food, the devil the cooks. Devilled crab.
—Wife well?
—Quite well, thanks … A cheese sandwich, then. Gorgonzola, have you?
—Yes, sir…
Mr Bloom cut his sandwich into slender strips…
– Mustard, sir?
– Thank you.
He studded under each lifted strip yellow blobs… A warm shock of air heat of mustard hauched on Mr Bloom’s heart…
Mr Bloom ate his strips of sandwich, fresh clean bread, with relish of disgust, pungent mustard, the feety savour of green cheese. Sips of his wine soothed his palate. Not logwood that. Tastes fuller this weather with the chill off…

From Ulysses by James Joyce (1922)

Every 16 June, Davy Byrnes’s pub on Duke Street, Dublin, serves upwards of 2,000 gorgonzola sandwiches washed down with red burgundy to customers celebrating the greatest 20th century novel. James Joyce’s Ulysses is devoted to the events of a single day, 16 June 1902. The sandwich-chomping multitude wish to consume the same lunch in the same place as Leopold Bloom, the novel’s breezy but cuckolded protagonist. Elsewhere in Dublin and around the world, untold numbers of Joyceans join in this tasty celebration.

“Many novelists never give their heroes a square meal,” wrote Joyce’s biographer Richard Ellman. “Joyce takes care that Bloom should have three.” It’s a safe bet that only the most visceral fans of the book will replicate Bloom’s breakfast of fried pig’s kidney or go the whole hog by wolfing down the evocative (possibly too evocative) mental menu near the start of the book. “Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.”

This unami-packed litany certainly appeals to me but it may be a bit too robust for literary fainthearts. However, their diffidence is also a tribute in its way. Like them, James Joyce was repelled by the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He was, however, partial to braised beef, particularly stracotto, a ragu from his adopted home of Trieste.

If Bloomsday had been a couple of months earlier, the celebratory lunch might have been more maritime in nature since Mr Bloom considered but then rejected the idea of oysters: “…yes but what about oysters? Unsightly like a clot of phlegm. Filthy shells. Devil to open them too. Who found them out? Garbage, sewage, they feed on… No. June has no ar no oysters.” When I paid a visit to Davy Byrnes, around 15 years ago, there was an “ar” in the month so I had a dozen oysters and persuaded my female companion to down a few. She did so and was sick on the following day. I was fine. She has never touched an oyster since. Let’s not think about Joyce’s calumny that they feed on “garbage, sewer”.

Unfortunately, the pub has undergone a through refurb since 1902. Of Mr Bloom’s description (“Nice quiet bar,” he thought to himself. “Nice piece of wood in that counter. Nicely planed. Like the way it curves there”) there is no sign, except for the rescued pub door through which Mr Bloom and Mr Joyce passed. It hangs high on a wall, now leading nowhere. In Stuart Gilbert’s book James Joyce”s Ulysses, a letter describing this desecration constitutes one of the saddest footnotes all lit crit: “I saw an old man gazing mournfully into his glass and murmuring, ‘This used to be a bloody lovely pub. A Bloody…Lovely…Pub!’ ” (For a nice quiet Dublin pub unchanged since 1902, you should head for Mulligan’s in Poolbeg Street, also patronised by Joyce.)

Oddly, the standard, non-Bloomsday menu of Davy Byrnes does not include gorgonzola sandwiches though you can have the cheese deep-fried as a “bar bite” for Є9. This omission is unfortunate. I made a gorgonzola sandwich with “fresh, clean bread” and the result was excellent in every respect including olfactory. I sniffed long and hard before eating. No suggestion of “feety savour”. Though an unusual addition, the blobs of mustard worked well, adding spicy punch to the sweetness of the cheese.

For a Dublin pub in 1902, Davy Byrnes seems to have been remarkably well-stocked with such exotica as olives, olive oil and gorgonzola. In his book Ulysses on the Liffey, Richard Ellman suggests that Mr Bloom’s choice of gorgonzola sandwich is not an early adoption of the Mediterranean diet but the solution to his “Jesuitical crisis” about whether to eat meat or vegetables. Gorgonzola is, we learn, “a better choice… neither vegetable nor meat yet it is alive. It is formed from mammal’s milk without slaughter and enclosed in bread which is vegetable in origin but reconstituted by man .” All clear now?

Baked pears in red wine and gorgonzola sauce

If you have enough cheese left after your lunchtime sandwich on 16 June, try this excellent dessert adapted from a recipe by my friend Giorgio Alessio of the Lanterna restaurant in Scarborough. Many supermarkets now offer a choice of dolce or piquante gorgonzola. The former is best for this recipe.

For two

You first need to make a little béchamel sauce

  • 200ml full milk
  • 35g butter
  • 20g plain flour, preferably “00”
  • salt and pepper

Bring milk to a simmer but do not allow to boil. In a second pan, melt the butter, then add the flour slowly, stirring continuously. When completely mixed, add the hot milk a little at a time, again stirring continuously until all the milk has been added, and you have a Smooth sauce. Season with a little salt and pepper. Leave to one side.

  • 100g béchamel sauce
  • 100g gorgonzola cut into small pieces
  • 100g mascarpone
  • 2 large pears
  • 70ml red wine
  • 35ml Marsala (or another sweet red wine)
  • 1 tbsp brown sugar
  • sweet paprika

Warm oven to 220 C. Peel the pears, cut in half lengthways and core. Place in small baking tray and pour over red wine and Marsala. Sprinkle with sugar. Cover and place at top of oven for 15-20 mins until pears have softened and cooked to a reddish brown.

Gently warm the béchamel then add the gorgonzola and mascarpone. Stir together to make a smooth sauce. Keep warm. Place each pear on a warm plate. Leaving the stalk end intact, slice the pears and fan the slices. Pour the hot cheese sauce over each pear and lightly sprinkle with paprika. Serve immediately.