William Skidelsky requires bread in his sandwich

It is now virtually impossible to find a plain old cheese-and-tomato sandwich

One of the reassuring things about a trip to France or Italy is the knowledge that, if ever you should find yourself with a rumbling stomach and a few moments to spare, you will never be far from a decent sandwich. Whether waiting at a railway station or an airport, or wandering the streets of some unfamiliar town, you can be virtually certain that a tasty snack will be close at hand. The sandwiches in continental Europe do not tend to be fussy or elaborate. Aesthetically, their mode is minimalistic: slices of salami wedged between chunks of ciabatta; baguettes filled with unsalted butter and Brie, or jambon. But at the root of their simplicity lies the age-old conviction that you cannot go far wrong with a good-quality filling placed between good-quality bread.

In Britain, this conviction has been entirely forgotten, if it ever existed. Most sandwiches these days obey the principle of maximalism: because more is invariably better than less, it is desirable for sandwiches to be packed with as many ingredients as possible. It has become all but impossible to find something as plain as a cheese-and-tomato sandwich. The modern sandwich aspires to the status of a restaurant dish, and so comes with an absurd inventory on its label: oven-baked ham, sliced egg, Italian matured cheese, mustard mayo, red onion, tomatoes, lettuce, and so on. Mayonnaise is practically ubiquitous, because the multiple ingredients require an agent to bind them.

What this represents is a shift in the balance of importance between bread and filling. As traditionally conceived, sandwiches were mainly about the bread. The filling was an accompaniment, a way of making bread taste better. Today, it is the filling that is all-important, and the bread that is becoming irrelevant. The trend has been exacerbated by the popularity of the Atkins diet. So it is hardly surprising that one chain has taken the logical step and dispensed with bread altogether. Pret A Manger's "Amazing No Bread" sandwiches have been on sale for a few months. What distinguishes them from a salad? A colleague filled me in: the ratio of filling to lettuce is higher than in a salad, and the ingredients are not mixed, but layered - just as in a sandwich.

What is the value of such a patently gimmicky trick? Against my better judgement, I decide to try Pret's salmon-and-egg No Bread sandwich, which besides poached salmon and egg mayo contains capers, cucumber, lemon and Dijon mustard dressing. It is an unappetising concoction, containing far too much egg mayo (which in any case doesn't go well with salmon), and a viciously acidic dressing. On the labels of its No Bread sandwiches, Pret claims to be "stunned by how popular they are". I couldn't have put it better myself.

This article first appeared in the 13 June 2005 issue of the New Statesman, G8 protest: how far should you go?