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Inanimate Icons of contemporary Ireland: 1 The Panino


For more years  than we care to remember, it has been the staple of the Irish diet. Whole generations were reared on this humble foodstuff which  cannot be found outside Ireland. But our love for it peaked in the boom and, as with all affairs, the flower of romance has begun to droop of late. And today we run the risk of losing part of our culinary heritage forever. Isn’t it time we fell back in love with the Panino, putting it at the centre of the spiffing new smart economy that we’re all so excited about?

The Facts
But first, the facts. For centuries, the Panino’s provenance has been shrouded in a dense mist, like the fog around Bertie Ahern. But recent research has shovelled the cold hard light of miserable day all over this traditional squashed bread snack and debunked 34 per cent of the myths surrounding it:

A little history
1. The first Panino was introduced to Ireland by Sir Walter Raleigh: Wrong. We now know that this piece of black propaganda was circulated by MI6 during a long tea-break in The Troubles. In fact, the honour goes to Guido Nervi, a brightly clad fifteen-year-old from Naples. The teen smuggled a Panino into Ireland on board a Ryanair flight in 1991. But the hot sandwich escaped into the wild when Nervi (unaware of Ireland’s red-trouser ban) was viciously attacked by a group of angry eight-year-olds on O’Connell Bridge (they now work in “digital media”). The Panini, meanwhile, multiplied and went feral.

2. The Panino was invented by Giovanni Panino: Close, but no Cohiba. Certainly, the legendary Venetian explorer gave his name to the snack. But as with every aspect of our lives today, the Chinese were ultimately responsible. Legend has it that Signor Panino discovered the toasted roll during a trade mission to Western China and was so taken with the delicacy that he foil-wrapped it and carried it all the way home to Venice, from a Londis in Szechuan province.

3. Panini sales account for one third of Ireland’s GDP: This is based on old data. And even now when we no longer own 97 per cent of the world’s large cranes and 83 per cent of Bulgaria, this is a stretch. Certainly most economists agree that the figure only stacks up if you include sales of breakfast rolls and batter burgers.

4. A Panino is just a bit of old toasted sandwich: False. The Panino is both squashed and toasted – a far cry from a miserable plastic-coated “toasted special”.

Some science
So, now we’ve undone a few of the lies and legends surrounding  Irish Panini. But one mystery remains: What is it that makes this hot meta-sandwich such a uniquely Irish taste sensation? Here’s just a sapore of some theories which have gained currency in recent years:

Famine Fear: The collective memory of the starvation endured in the Great Famine means the Irish will eat pretty much anything that’s handed to them. A sanger in the hand beats eating a bush, as the saying goes. Historians have noted that in the Post-Famine era, Irish farmers cutely moved gradually away from the potato crop and towards their nearest Spar where Panini were a more reliable food source.

Symbolic Sandwich: For psychologists, the lure of Panini is more deeply rooted in the Irish psyche. Panini  – they say – are nothing less than a bready embodiment of the Irish people. Half-baked, uninspired, over-priced and easily filled with rubbish – in the Panino we see a mirror of ourselves, and everything that makes it great to be Irish.

Aspirational Snack: Those in the field of sociologists have a very different theory. For them, the Panino is the quintessential “aspirational” product. Straight off the griddle and steaming hot, the Panino offers consumers a chance to bite into the swash-buckling, cut-throat world of profiteering which all of us aspired to, until last Tuesday week. Certainly, the Panino and the property market share an identical business model: First, take poor quality ingredients, add a foreign name (Westminster Downs, Westminster Panini etc.), then overheat furiously.

Of course that’s as far as the Panino/Property analogy can stretch. Because as we all know, a Panino quickly cools down leaving a soggy mess that no one in their right mind would deal with.

Going forward we  need to develop a new language for a Panino for a new generation. We should export it. There may be a particular market in Italy, where the IDA is already having success with another Celtic Tiger refugee, Ciabatta. Panini should become the new River Dance –  Johnston, Mooney and O’Brien white slices rendered exquisite for the twenty tens. We must save them from the fate of their abandoned European cousins, Boxty and griddle-bread.  The Panino is a displaced icon awaiting a nostalgia.