In the corner of every pie and mash shop, a vat of once writhing eels can be found steaming away beneath the window. Eels have been traditional cockney staples since the mid 1800s. They are the jewel in the crown of the London's oldest fast food joint, an institution which has been around even longer than the fish and chippy. These unchanging establishments are unique to London and embody a former era of working-class England.
The generous servings of short-crust pies, downy mash, eels (jellied or stewed), and luminous green parsley eel liquor have barely changed since the shops first opened. In the same way that the recipes are unchanged, many of the shops' gilt signage, marble surfaces, and ornately tiled walls are also carved in stone. Pie, mash, and eel became a popular dish for the working-class in the East End of London because the ingredients were cheap, plentiful, easy to prepare, and filling. The first shops opened in the mid 1800s and served pies filled with eels from the Thames. As one of the only fish which could endure the industrial grime of the polluted river, the seemingly endless supply of eels ended up on the plates of poor Londoners. However, when eel supplies diminished after World War II, the pies were filled with minced beef, as they are today.
Sadly, pie and mash shops are quickly becoming a fading memory. Since 1994, 39 shops have closed across London. What's more, all the East End eel stalls along Brick Lane and Roman Road have now closed. In an attempt to seek out the stubborn holdouts still serving cockney comfort food, I decided to venture into some of London's oldest shops.
I started in M. Manze, London's oldest pie and mash shop still in business today. Housed in historic building, the shop opened in 1902, and the white and green tiled interior hasn't been redecorated since. A long white marble counter runs down one side of the corridor-like space, which is filled with wobbly wooden benches. Although it's busy, the wait is quick because the girls know all of their regulars' orders by heart. Luckily, there are plenty of regulars.
The menu doesn't offer a dizzying choice of pie fillings—just a meat or veg option, but no one in sight is opting for the veg. The eel menu is equally simple: stewed or jellied. The prices are reasonable and I know I will leave feeling stuffed for under a fiver. After ordering, the food is served instantaneously, with a liberal ladle of parsley eel liquor (or gravy for the faint-hearted). The short-crust of the pie is gratifyingly crisp, the beef filling is richly meaty, and the chili vinegar sets it off.
Then it comes to the jellied eel—cooked eels set in a natural aspic jelly made from eel bones. The meat of the eel is white while the skin is ice blue. It is cut into bite-sized chunks and doesn't look unlike pickled herring, apart from the wobbling gelatin that clings to it for dear life. Nevertheless, it tastes nothing like pickled herring or unagi, the Japanese eel. Although the slurpy, gelatinous texture of the cold jelly is off-putting at first, the eels themselves have a delicate, sweetish flavor.
Manze's manager, Kelly Moore, explains that when the eels are in season, they come from the river Thames. When they're out of season, they're imported from Holland. Unlike the old days, the eels no longer arrive alive. Instead, the recently deceased creatures are already skinned. Once at Manze's, they are cut into chunks, boiled in a spiced stock, and left to cool and set in the fridge, forming a natural jelly. The stewed eels are cooked in parsley liquor on the day they're served.
Moore says that eels have become less popular over the years, but "lots of locals and tourists are still keen to try them." Manze's uses the same recipes today that it used over 100 years ago. "Every morning we roll out fresh shortcrust pastry, mince prime cuts of beef ,and bake the pies in traditional stone ovens," says Moore, who says she loves her job because she gets to "meet all walks of life, from locals to pearly kings and queens, tourists, city bods and even the occasional northerner."
To my surprise, Manze's seems to be doing pretty well on the business front, and Moore appears unfazed by the demise of fellow shops. "Business is good and always picks up throughout the week," she says. "We can always rely on Millwall football matches to bring in a long queue down the road. The fans will sit in here, eight to a table, and wolf down their pies elbow to elbow." Millwall fans are not the only footballers to frequent Manze's. David Beckham has also been known to pass through when in town, and Roy Orbison was a regular.
Moving further East, I decided to try Cooke's in Shoreditch, East London. Although this particular shop has only been open since 1985, it is run by one of the oldest pie and mash families in London. Owner Joseph Cooke's great grandfather opened the first shop in London in 1862, and Joseph's brother owns his own pie and mash shop, F. Cooke, down the road.
Cooke greets me warmly, eager to share his never-ending knowledge of a practice that has been in his family for generations. "The eel trade is non-existent compared to years ago," he says, "because they've got increasingly expensive and gone out of fashion."
Their popularity might have dipped, but Cooke's eels remain some of the best in all of London. "The secret is in the cooking," he assures me. "We boil 'em up in tasty parsley juice and they set like concrete, all naturally, with no added gelatin." He says they taste even better with the homemade chili vinegar they make from fresh Scotch bonnets on the premises.
I notice one older lady slurping away on a portion in the corner. Cooke says that pie and mash shops are one of the few places left where there is a true sense of community. "One old boy, Graham, treks all the way from South London five days a week because pie and mash is £1 for pensioners here."
Nevertheless, business is not what it used to be. The arrival of hip Shoreditch restaurants and pop-up joints has made it tough to compete, and Cooke also says that takeaway sales have dropped 90 percent since the financial crisis of 2008. "We used to have bundles of orders from the city, but since 10,000 people in the city lost their job, this trade has virtually died."
Like many relics of old working-class London, jellied eels and their purveyors don't enjoy the demand that they once did—but we shouldn't soon forget them before they fade irrevocably into the past.