The Martino: Sandwich of Legend

Joe Stange goes in search of the origins of a piece of Antwerp (or is it Ghent?) culinary history

Antwerp’s version of the story goes like this: it’s 1951 and footballer Albert De Herdt is working in a sandwich shop on De Coninckplein, north of Central station. This is the same year, incidentally, that he would be the Belgian league’s top scorer, with 25 goals for Berchem Sport. (Salaries were lower then, obviously, or else here was a man who loved sandwiches as much as he loved football.)

One day, fellow footballer Theo Maertens – nickname: Martino – walks into De Hert’s sandwich shop. He has, we can suppose, a hunger of the sort that high-energy top-level athletes can have. He asks for a broodje with everything De Herdt has left in the kitchen.

This is what Maertens gets: fresh, raw steak américain, cayenne pepper, ketchup, onions, pickles, pili-pili, salt, Tabasco and Worcestershire sauce.

A legend is born. That is the classic Martino – according to Antwerpeners, anyway. Ghent has a different story, but we’ll get to that. First I want to find a proper Martino in Antwerp, ideally with a glass of beer.

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So on a summer evening I return to the Martino’s birthplace. De Coninckplein has no great monument, no plaque, no commercialised Martino Museum to commemorate that watershed moment in Belgian culinary history. But the place is full of life, with neighbours from overlapping cultural enclaves gathering to sit and talk or play basketball. De Herdt’s shop of 1951 is long gone, of course, but there are several busy cafes around the square.

Only one has a Martino on the menu: a small bakery named De Coninck. For €2.25 and despite the absence of anything beer-like, my friend and I give it a try. After obscured goings-on behind the counter we receive sandwiches on tough, stale bread, loaded down with carrots, lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, onions and boiled eggs, glued together with a tangy, red, vaguely meat-like paste.

Clearly this is not the real thing.

We’re both hungry enough to choke down about half before remembering that life is too short, stomach space too precious. We move on, as we need something to unclog our throats.So we head to the Paters Vaetje, the classic cafe in the shadow of the Cathedral of Our Lady. While perusing the list of 100-odd beers we glance over the snacks and – lo and behold – there is a Martino. This is fate speaking. Or is it doom?

I order one, despite not being especially hungry anymore. What I receive resembles the imagined Martino of legend – fresh bread, plenty of pickles, onions, spicy sauces – except that the beef is cooked. It turns out the Monk’s Casket has two Martinos on the menu. The waiter had apparently sized me up – hmmm, tourist! – and decided that what I really wanted was the Martino burger, not the Martino américain.

So I eat the burger. And it’s good– punchy heat, juicy beef, tangy pickles, all doused with a brightly bitter TarasBoulba. Yet Mission: MartinoQuest is incomplete. I must return later to the Paters Vaetjefor the real thing… but first, a detour to Ghent.

The Other Martino

Here is one tale I hear – not fully researched, mind you, just an explanation from my friend Jim, a fellow enthusiast of odd Belgian snacks. “I think the sandwich you’re referring to is the broodje Martino, which is definitely from Ghent,” says Jim, who lives there. “The version sold in Antwerp and other parts of Belgium often omits the essential anchovies and is looked on with derision by the Gentenaars.

“The story goes that during the German occupation, a soldier went into the Martino snackbar in Ghent and asked for the best sandwich in the house. The owner, trying to get back at the occupiers, constructed a sandwich from preparé, onions, egg, anchovies and tabasco sauce.To his surprise, the soldier loved it, and the broodje Martino was born.”

It’s a good story, but it has problems. The Martino cafe in east-central Ghent, on Vlaanderenstraat near the red light district, only opened in 1954 – nine years after German occupation ended. 1954 is also the year that Raymond Noe claimed to have invented it. Notably, that’s three years after De Herdt’s Antwerp claim.

“I think different people invented it in different places,” says PascalineNoe, Raymond’s daughter, who now runs the Martino with her brother Didier. “Who knows? They’re all dead, the people who invented it.”She’s right, of course: Noe died in 1979, De Herdt in 2013. But I am alive, and I am hungry. So I order a Martino from Pascaline.

“We don’t have it.”

What? You don’t serve a Martino in the place where it was invented?

“You can’t get a broodje Martino here anymore, it’s too much trouble. Everybody wanted it in different ways.”

Do people ever try to order it anyway?

“Every day they come in and ask! We’ve not served it since 2007. And they still come in and ask for it. You’re the fourth or fifth person today.” It’s 10pm, incidentally, and the cafe has only been open since 6pm.

Dispirited and confused but still hungry, I ask for a suggestion. It seems one of the Martino’s current specialities is a cheese and egg burger. Like a distillation of all that stuff you eat while drunk in college –Ghent is a student city, after all – it arrives as a cooked beef patty smothered in cheese, fried egg and a tangy red sauce. I eat it with a comforting, numbing WestmalleTripel. And I like it.

But MartinoQuest remains elusive.

Back in Antwerp

De Herdt later opened a relatively upmarket restaurant on Amerikalei called Ciro’s. It’s still there, popular and efficiently run by new ownership. But like in Ghent, the Martino is not on the menu.So the next day, it’s clear what I must do. I return to the Paters Vaetje and order the correct Martino –américain for the American, alstublieft. It’s fresh and cool and tangy, even if it lacks the spice of the burger version. I add hot sauce to compensate, and more pickles to give it some crunch. I believe this is legal within the bounds of the classic.The beer manages to meet the Martino’s intensity, just. It’s dryish and bitterish with a subtle acidity from half-wild fermentation – it’s the Wild Jo, in fact, the new one from De Koninck.

A local beer is only appropriate, after all. Antwerp has the better claim.