Recent research has suggested that, far from being a sign of being stuck in the past, nostalgia can actually be good for you. Of course, we’re not talking about the mawkish and sentimental clinging on to the ‘good old days’, but more the ability to use positive memories to confront fears of our own mortality. Deep stuff.
Recently I was able to put this theory into practice when visiting dear old Grandad, who was still in Northwick Park hospital after a fall. Arriving straight from work and feeling pretty ravenous we headed straight to the canteen. And, even more joyfully, they had crumble and custard on the menu.
Everything about NHS custard screams nostalgia to anyone that ever went to school in the UK. At once managing to be gloopy, thick, lumpy and watery; like a kind of fifth matter that exists like a rogue plasma in a state somewhere between liquid and solid. Whist some (most) people may baulk at the thought, to me it was some sort of culinary nirvana – although it should be noted that at my first parent’s evening my Mum and Dad were amused to hear a glowing report from my teacher on my burgeoning appetite. My particular lunchtime favourites being plum cake (and, of course, custard) and cheese ‘pie’ (nothing like a pie).
Underneath this liquid with a life of its own was a particularly fine apricot crumble. Sweet and sour fruit with an oaty rubble on top that still remained mysteriously crisp despite the torrents of yellow gunge. Just £1.21 for the custard and 33p extra for the magnificent custard. Add in a plate of Cajun chicken and some of the finest chips I have had for a while (although it felt kind of counter intuitive to be eating them in a hospital) and that’s institutionalised cuisine at its finest.
Sadly our culinary trip down memory lane was thwarted when Grandad was soon transferred to Central Middlesex hospital; although of course much better for him. CMH is a much spiffier gaff, but their canteen had sadly closed before we arrived in the evening. Thankfully Beirut Nights @cafe, restaurant and shisha lounge' is to be found adjoining the hospital entrance at the corner of Abbey Road, and provided the perfect pit stop before visiting hours.
Starting our visit by being seated in the restaurant, we were soon relegated to the outdoor shisha lounge as, curiously, the pitta wraps we had chosen - alongside a couple of mezze dishes to start - aren’t served inside. This turned out to be no bad thing; the shisha lounge was lovely and warm due to a plethora of heaters that kept the temperature raised (along with their energy bills). There was also some attention diverting cricket which pleased me, the Ewing less so.
The food was very good. Our mezze of Houmous Kawarma - the familiar chickpea and tahini dip, topped with sizzling cubes of grilled lamb and pine nuts - was exemplary. The tabouleh was equally good -a thicket of freshly chopped parsley, interspersed with just enough bulgar wheat and topped with diced tomatoes and a good squeeze of lemon juice.
These were followed by a chicken and salad schwarma wrap, enlivened by a healthy dose of fiery chilli chutney and garlic sauce (the doctors would be pleased that we were thinking of our hearts, even if our colleagues the next day disagreed) and a soujouk wrap. The soujouk being spicy little homemade beef sausages -shaped rather like the ones that come in tins with beans, but far more reputable. Delicious but rather tricky to stop the odd stray escaping from the confines of their pitta blanket, though.
All the custard obviously had the right effect on Grandad, as a couple of weeks later he was being discharged back home, shiny new Zimmer frame in tow. After a comical scenario on the first evening (with the joy of hindsight) when the district nurses didn’t turn up, I stepped in to the breach as chief cook and bottle washer whilst the Ewing battled valiantly with a medicine chart ‘for the fridge’ (it would have papered the whole kitchen) and dispensed his pills and potions. At least we now know why Grandad rattles.
After our evening’s entertainment settling him back home there was no better place for some much needed soul soothing than the nearby B&K Salt Beef Bar in Hatch End. I’ve written about this place before, but with Jewish deli food this good it bears repeating.
First up was a bowl of good old chicken soup. Here you can have it with lokshen (noodles) kneidlach (Matzo balls), or kreplach (turkey and garlic ‘ravioli’). We both chose a mix of balls and noodles, served with a plate of their caraway spiked rye bread to mop up every last drop.
Of course this esteemed dish is not called Jewish penicillin for nothing, and nothing seemed quite so welcome when it was placed in front of us.
Next up was the main draw, mountains of hand carved salt beef sandwiched between the aforementioned rye bread. Cured brisket - along with bacon and ketchup on a Sunday morning and turkey post-Christmas - remains one of my very favourite sarnie fillings. Here the meat has just enough wobbly fat at its edges (ask for it lean if you prefer) to keep things lubricated and is served with an optional schmear of poky yellow mustard and a crunchy sweet and sour dill pickle.
Latkes, crunchy little discs of deep fried of potato and onion, are a must order, even if we did end up taking most of ours home for later.
I couldn't resist a homemade desert to go, in this case lokshen pud, a homemade sweet noodle pudding made with orange juice and raisins. Yes, it sounds pretty grim, no, it really isn’t - the overall effect being something rather like a baked bread pudding, with its mixture of crunchy topping and comforting starchiness and sweet fruit underneath.
The Ewing had a giant doorstop of sticky chocolate cake - what else? - which, despite its gargantuan size, I still missed snaffling a picture of. Reports are that it was comforting and sweet, which rather perfectly describes my own little Florence Nightingale herself. Well, at least until I hear of a stubborn and forgetful kind of cake…