• An original A1 Canteen muffaletta. (Nikki To)Source: Nikki To
It originates from New Orleans, is over one hundred years old and works as a birthday cake.
Lee Tran Lam

7 Aug 2019 - 11:41 AM  UPDATED 31 Aug 2020 - 10:53 AM

If you have a healthy appetite and Instagram account, you would've witnessed the rise of the muffuletta.

This pressed sandwich is an impressive storage unit for practically every cheese and cold cut you'd find in a deli, with olive salad tightly wedged between the layered ingredients.

In Australia, the muffuletta's transformation into a superstar sandwich can be credited to Sydney's A1 Canteen, which opened last June with this blockbuster dish on its menu. This mega-stack of cheese, salad and meats – expertly sealed inside a pocket of Sonoma sourdough – soon gained a celebrity-like level of close-ups on Instagram. Stories about A1 Canteen paid tribute to this sandwich's social media reign. Its fans include acclaimed chefs such as Neil Perry and Analiese Gregory.

So how did it end up at A1 Canteen? Let's rewind a few years to the birthday of chef/co-owner Clayton Wells.

Glenda Lau, a waitress at his Automata restaurant, turned up with a muffuletta. "She busted it out after service and baked it 'til all the cheese melted inside," says Wells. "It was a glorious moment."

It inspired the chef to create a version for A1 Canteen.

"The first time we put it on the menu, it wasn't too different from Glenda's," he says. "It had less cheese and we didn't bake it for as long, so we'd be able to cut it without it falling apart."

A1's muffuletta was mega-stuffed with deli cuts (mortadella, salami and leg ham), cheese (provolone and gouda), olive salad (spinach, olives, sun-dried tomatoes and globe artichokes) and a swipe of Dijon mustard. Each muffuletta is a two-day operation: the sandwich is filled and pressed overnight. Then it's roasted in the oven and sliced to reveal the colourful build-up of ingredients inside.

With the muffuletta's reputation as Australia's most-Instagrammed sandwich, were people travelling crazy distances to try it?

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"I wouldn't say people were crossing the country to have it, but it did feel like it was the only thing we sold at lunch for six months," says Wells.

Recently, A1 Canteen replaced this sandwich with a vegetarian alternative.

"We wanted to be able to offer a version of the muffuletta to our customers who don't eat meat – which is quite a lot of people," says Wells. The chef wanted to make a sandwich that stood on its own, and wasn't just a hollowed-out muffuletta with deli cuts scraped out.

They come meat-free as well.

The flavours had to be as punchy as the original: this meant salting and fermenting pumpkin; braising three kinds of greens with kombu and lemon; roasting capsicum to go with the olives, sun-dried tomatoes and globe artichokes; and quadruple-stacking the sandwich with cheese (ricotta salata, Red Leicester, gouda and provolone).

The reaction has been great.

"Even the meat lovers that used to come in for the meat version now come in for the vego one," says Wells.

When A1 Canteen recently hosted Lee Ho Fook's Victor Liong at a guest-chef event, the restaurant paid tribute to him in the most apt away possible: with an Asian-inspired sandwich.

This "Eight-Treasure Muffuletta" was packed to the crust with fried bean curd, sambal, char siu, pickled bamboo and other staple Eastern ingredients.

Given A1 Canteen's status as Australia's Muffuletta HQ, has Wells tried other versions of the well-stacked sandwich?

"I haven't been to New Orleans where the OG one comes from," says Wells. "Before Glenda made it for me as a replacement for a birthday cake, I hadn’t even heard if it."

Glenda Lau, meanwhile, first had a muffuletta in the early '90s, in a Sydney cafe called Home. She regularly ordered this pie-like sandwich, which comes in several flavours.

"One day, I went in for my usual and they didn't have any," she says. The older Italian man who'd been making sandwiches for the cafe had been in car accident that day. "After that, it was off the menu," she says. "I don’t know how bad the accident was, but that was the end of it."

She started asking her Italian friends about the muffuletta, but no one had heard of the sandwich. "So when I saw Adam Liaw make one on SBS, I was inspired!" she says. "I'd already made a smörgåstårta for Clayton for a birthday as a gift because sandwiches are his favourite thing ever, so the muffuletta was a natural progression."

James Metcalfe's muffuletta at Sydney's Saint George restaurant is influenced by his time in New Orleans, where the sandwich originates. In fact, his first muffuletta was at Central Grocery, where the sandwich was invented in 1906. Owner Salvatore Lupo noticed that Sicilian farmers would visit his store and order deli meats, cheese, olives and bread and struggle to balance the different trays of food on their laps. So he decided to conveniently blend everything into a sandwich, which was much easier to eat.

This was one of many versions that Metcalfe sampled in New Orleans. "The range of different meats, cheeses and the big debate to whether it would be served hot or cold meant I went on to try many others during my trip," he says.

Getting the sandwich right is a serious proposition. One New Orleans chef had "literally gotten into fistfights" over whether a muffuletta should be hot or cold, reports The Wall Street Journal. ("It is a cold-cut sandwich. It is meant to be served and eaten cold!" says Phillip Lopez, from New Orleans's Square Root.)

Metcalfe, however, has opted for a hot muffuletta at Saint George (for maximum cheese-melting appeal), and a lighter version of the typical sesame-seed-crusted loaf – for extra crunch when toasted.

A muffaletta from St George.

"Our olive mayonnaise is a contemporary take on the traditional olive salad and the saltiness of the mayonnaise balances out the creamy qualities within the Swiss cheese," he says. "We also add sweet roasted peppers to compliment the smoked ham."

So why is an Italian-inspired sandwich from New Orleans currently trending in Australia?

"It is a fresh and exciting change from the all-too-common flavours found in toasted sandwiches," says Metcalfe. "The one made at A1 was really impressive and really put the sandwich in the limelight."

Sydney's Bourke Street Bakery recently opened its first New York outpost and there's a muffuletta on the menu. You can credit gas issues (which delayed the cafe's late 2018 opening by half a year) for its creation.

"Whilst [co-owner] Paul [Allam] was waiting for the gas to be connected, he spent time perfecting the bread and his giardiniera pickles for the muffuletta," says co-owner David McGuinness.

"There are so many great sandwiches here with equally great names – Paul couldn't resist the muffuletta," says his wife Jessica Grynberg. "The secret to our muffuletta is all about the pickle on a beautiful handmade olive panini, just like the one we make in Sydney."

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The bread is filled with pistachio-stuffed mortadella, shaved ham, mozzarella and the much-laboured-over pickles: "we cut up our own cauliflower florets, we dice our carrots and pickle them for two months with olives and confit garlic."

"It may make it to the BSB Sydney menu one day," says McGuinness. "But there are no solid plans."

Should the muffuletta wave get bigger in Australia, perhaps we'll see variations inspired by overseas creations – like the seafood muffuletta at Parran's Po Boys (stuffed with prawns, catfish, oysters and Cajun mayonnaise) or meaty pizza muffuletta at Mo's Pizza, both from New Orleans.

Some people have created cake versions of the sandwich – which seems apt. The muffuletta's role as a birthday-cake replacement inspired Australia's current obsession with this New Orleans creation, after all.

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