I love salt beef sandwiches. I grew up eating them. I often go to the Brass Rail, in Selfridges food hall, just to have one for lunch. I have it lean, on rye, shmear of French, pickle on the side. I love watching the chef slice the pickle, in a second, bam bam bam. I drink a pot of tea with it, like I’m in the Nosherie just off Hatton Garden, in 1970, with my father. I don’t really like the idea of food being a treat, I want to enjoy everything I eat, but this is one. I wouldn’t make one at home. I could never slice the pickle as quickly and expertly as they can. And I like the business of getting your order at the Brass Rail. You pick up a heavy wooden tray and shuffle along a counter telling people what you want. You have to work a little and that’s a-ok.
While I’m walking down this particular lane of memory, in the 1960’s my mother would take me to the Orchard Room at Selfridges. It may be when I first began to love eating out. She’d make me wear clean, smart clothes. After all, we were going to the West End. I wore a yellow bow tie on elastic. My hair was neatly parted, shiny with Brylcream. I remember the room being quite dark, atmospheric. There was brass. It seemed very glamorous. We’d sit at stools at the counter and each eat a mushroom omelette with matchstick chips. Now there’s a food treat for a little boy. It would still be a food treat for me.
This week I decided to have a Reuben for a change. I’ve never eaten one before. Chances are I won’t again. A brick-sized sandwich was placed on my tray. I gulped, laughed nervously. Layers of bread, sauerkraut, cheese, pickle, Russian sauce, whatever that is. It’s flesh coloured, I know that. Russian dressing, maybe. It cost £15.50, which isn’t nothing for a sandwich, however monumental.
I climbed onto one of the high stools at the window. They’re too high and it wasn’t easy. Once you’re up you don’t want to get down again if you’re going to have to get up again. The stools are made for Ibex. There’s a mountain theme going on here. I wish there was a mural of an Alpine scene like there was at the Nosherie all those years ago. Maybe I should suggest it to Selfridges. (I can’t find anyone to verify that memory of an Alpine mural. If it wasn’t at the Nosherie it was somewhere). The chef at the Brass Rail calls out every time a Rueben is made so I know lots of people were eating them. I took a deep breath, picked up a knife and fork and dug in. It’s a bad sign when you need cutlery to eat a sandwich. I know BIG sandwiches are American style but my appetite is more modest. I know some people eat burgers and pizzas with knives and forks, like maiden aunts, but people should know better. Some things should be held in your hands when you’re eating them. Is this how a Reuben’s should taste? It was too sweet. The sourness of the sauerkraut didn’t mitigate the sweetness at all. The cheese was MIA. I picked out the meat and pickle, ate those with the bread. I left half the sandwich on my plate and my tongue still felt coated with sugary fat all afternoon. This Reuben fellow isn’t for me.
There’s still a café in Greville Street where the old Nosherie stood. It’s kept the name but that’s all that remains. Hatton Garden isn’t how it was all those years ago and nor is the Nosherie. No more latkes, no more chopped liver, no more over crowding or rude waitresses squeezing between the tables. No more gallah, which my father adored. In case you don’t know, gallah is a slab of dark jelly made from a calf’s foot. It has bits of stuff suspended in it. We would squeal with disgust when he ordered it.
Jewish food should only ever aspire to sweetness. Even Jewish desserts – lockshen pudding, compote – are only notionally acquainted with sweetness. This is more New York Lower East Side than shtetl Poland. I expect sugar in shtetl Poland was too expensive. Besides, kosher laws rule out eating milk without a two hour break after meat. So all the Western European desserts, crème brûlées, ice creams and so on, don’t exist in Jewish cuisine. Cheese cake is to be had with a cup of lemon tea, it’s a different meal. And don’t get me started on dairy-free ice cream. I beg you never to put a bowl of that foul stuff in front of me (again).
The Brass Rail, Selfridges, 400 Oxford Street, London W1A 1AB