When travelling to foreign cities I always investigate the food tours on offer. I relish the idea of walking around with an entertaining guide, being introduced not only to snippets of information about the area, but also a local’s knowledge of where to find some of the best food. Often these are places off the beaten track of the tourist trail or guide books. So when I was invited to join in the Eating London Tour of the East End of the city, I was keen to say the least.
This eating tour takes the visitor to award winning restaurants rather than unknown eateries that fall below the radar, but is none the worse for that as it showcases some of the finest examples of well-loved dishes in the English repertoire.
We gathered at Spitalfields market at 10 am. Knowing that we were in for a lot of eating over the next few hours I had taken the precaution of not eating breakfast. This was a wise decision as our first stop was St John Bread and Wine, the smaller sister restaurant of St John in Smithfield, renowned for its chef/owner Fergus Henderson who popularised the idea of nose to tail eating. While the restaurant dishes up plates of dinner from every imaginable part of the animal, we were here for breakfast which, in the UK, means just one thing: bacon. Having read that this bacon sarnie is considered the best of its kind in London, my expectations were high. The Old Spot Bacon Sandwich is made – as the name suggests – from Gloucester Old Spot pigs using a 3 stage process of soaking, curing and smoking.
As I am not a great lover of smoked meats, bacon is not top of my list of favourite foods. Perhaps that is because I have never before eaten bacon of this ilk. Imagine a generous helping of thick cut, meaty rashers of the tastiest bacon, not too salty or fatty, sandwiched between freshly baked, griddled slices of white bread, generously buttered, and served with a small pot of homemade ketchup. I am not in a position to say with any authority that this is the best bacon butty in the capital, but I can assure you that it is the finest example I have yet had the pleasure to taste. Forget your arterial health and indulge.
For my money, we could have spent the rest of the day in this lovely spot, once a bank, and now a simply decorated, tranquil place for an early morning pick me up. However, our tour guide, Emily, had plenty more to show us.
A few minutes walk brought us to The English Restaurant housed in the oldest home in Spitalfields, dating back to the 17th century. It specialises in traditional English cuisine in a lovely wood-paneled room.
We were here to taste their bread and butter pudding. Not quite the sort of dish I would usually eat at 10.30 in the morning, but it could become a habit. This dessert happens to be one of my favourites and I have often made it myself at home. If I was able to produce a dish of this excellence I would be very proud indeed.
Bread and butter pudding has its origins in a time of austerity and poverty. It was initially called Poor Man’s Pudding or Dustman’s Wedding Cake and was made from stale bread that was soaked in milk and then baked with either a sweet or savoury filling. This version had not a trace of austerity about it, being made with the restaurants own recipe brioche, with an added note of citrus. The traditional accompaniment of custard, a new taste experience for our South American guests, was spiked with rum and run through with the seeds from a vanilla bean. As we scraped out every last crumb of this brilliantly executed pudding, one of our group quipped that it was totally healthy because it makes you happy. I couldn’t agree more.
By now our stomachs needed a bit of a break before the next food stop and we walked about the streets soaking in some of the social history of this multicultural area.
Spitalfields once housed a Roman burial ground, later a large Medieval Hospital from whence its name is derived – the field in which the hospital was located. In Victorian times the area was considered a nation of its own and was not included in maps of London. It was an area riddled with poverty and crime, the largest red light district in Europe and attracted the likes of Jack the Ripper, one of whose victims was found on the site of what is now a parking lot.
Being a neighbourhood that has experienced waves of immigrants arriving on its shores, centuries old buildings have been inhabited by diverse groups fleeing persecution. First came the French Huguenots in the 17th century, many of whom were master weavers, and who eventually left for America. They were followed by Irish immigrants fleeing the famine.
Then came the Jewish community fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe in the 19th century. They set up schools, synagogues, and soup kitchens to feed the poor, one of which was still serving 1500 people in the 1950’s and only closed its doors in 1992.
Each group of migrants brought new foods to the area which makes for a marvelous multicultural gastronomy.
Having tasted two classically English dishes, our next stop was to savour English cheese. Curiously the cheese we tasted was from a well-known French fromagerie called Androuet which was established on the Champs Elysee in Paris in 1909. Its mission was to introduce regional cheese to Parisians. More recently the brand moved to London.
The cheese is bought while young directly from farmers, and matured below the shop in the cellar. The UK has some 700 cheeses of which cheddar makes up 51% of sales.
The Westcombe Cheddar was an excellent example of a fine, mature cheddar – not the sort you will find in your local supermarket. The Baronet was a creamy cheese with a slightly sour note, while the blue Stilton had a hint of sweetness and less pungency than its French cousins.
Maturing cheese, we were told is akin to parenting – it takes patience, money and the right environment. I quite agree – especially since the mould in the Stilton resembles what I find growing in plates and cups buried in the depths of my sons’ bedrooms.
Fish and chips is as English as strawberries and cream or summer rain, but we were in for a surprise as to its origins. The idea of frying fish in batter came from Portuguese immigrants while chips originated in Belgium. It took a Jewish immigrant in the 19th century, to combine the two items. Joseph Malin, began selling fish and chips together on a tray in the east end. This novelty was such a success that he was able to open the very first fish and chip shop called Malins. The rest is history as they say and the UK now boasts over 10 000 specialist fish and chip shops.
Winner of the best fish and chip shop 2014 is Poppies which was our next stop. We were keen to taste what all the fuss is about. Decorated like a 50s diner, Poppies is run by Pops who has been in the business from age 11. The fish fryer has been at his post for 51 years. Not exactly new kids on the block.
Traditionally, fish and chips is wrapped in old newspaper. When this was outlawed because of the ink being deemed unhealthy, Pops had his own newspaper printed using edible ink. That is the sort of attention to detail that make this shop stand out from the rest.
The fish was fresh and moist inside its light yet crunchy batter. I liked the fact that the chips were not salted so that diners can be responsible for their own sodium level.
A bowl of bright green mushy peas completed the picture and contributed one of our five-a-day. Is this the best fish and chips in the country? I bet this is hotly debated. Try it and see.
Although it was not yet noon, we found ourselves next in an award winning pub, The Pride of Spitalfields, where Lenny the resident cat lay snoozing in a warm corner. Lucky man.
After all we had eaten I was in serious need of a lie down myself. Especially following a glass of Trumans Emperor Real Ale and another of chilled Sharps Orchard Cider. Although it was somewhat early in the day to be knocking back the drinks, we needed some alcohol to soak up all the food.
We found our way to Brick Lane, surely one of the most famous streets in London, where the use of the same buildings over many centuries has resulted in some curious religious reincarnations. The Jammie Masjid mosque has previously been a Protestant church, a Methodist chapel and a synagogue.
How many prayers must have been offered up by newly settled communities over the course of time, how many celebrations of new life alongside longing and sadness for homes left behind across the seas?
Brick Lane is well known for its proliferation of curry houses resulting from the influx of Bangladeshi migrants who settled in the city during the 20th century. Some had been cooks on British ships that docked in London and they used their skills to set up restaurants. Today you will find more curry houses in London than in Mumbai and there are 50 just in three streets around Brick Lane. Of course they vary enormously in quality.
We were taken to Aladin whose chef has been preparing curries there for 25 years. We sampled three dishes – vegetarian bhuna (mild), lamb parthia (medium) and chicken madras (hot- ish).
Like Goldilocks we tasted all three bowls and then felt in need of a nap. The lamb got the popular vote, being of medium heat and flavoured with coconut and lime.
The latest migrants to the area are the artists and hipsters who arrived in the last decades of the past century in search of cheap rents and large disused industrial spaces. There are now some 60 000 artists working in the area and a proliferation of street art that is both colourful and entertaining.
We were taken down streets and alleys to see some of the best of these and our guide pointed out installations and sculptures that you would not generally notice if you were strolling around the area.
Having enjoyed a visual feast, we moved on to our next food stop, With stomachs groaning we made space for yet another local institution – Beigel Bake.
At the top of Brick Lane you will find two beigel bakeries alongside one another, allegedly the result of a family fallout. The one on the left is the less popular sibling. Beigel Bake, on the right, is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and is rewarded with a loyal following. I have visited this bakery several times over the years and no matter the time of day, there is always a queue. Apparently the most interesting characters are to be found waiting their turn in the early hours of the morning.
The bagels here are prepared the traditional way which is boiled before being baked. This is what gives them that delightfully chewy texture. The salt beef is the best I have found since vising the famous delis of New York.
Thick slabs of salt beef, with a perfect quotient of fat, layered onto a bagel, a dollop of strong English mustard is added and a pickled gherkin is laid alongside. It is one of the most comforting mouthfuls of food imaginable – except of course if you are a vegetarian. This is the sort of food that is dangerously addictive, at least for the waistline and your cholesterol score.
To be perfectly frank, I was flagging by this point, my belly filled beyond the point of comfort and we still had one last stop. On we walked into Shoreditch, filled with amusing graffiti art, pop up shops and restaurants, where hipsters feel at home.
Our destination was Pizza East – a large warehouse space in a converted biscuit factory, aptly done up in industrial style – long wooden tables and quirky wooden seats that swung out from the table legs on metal arms. We had come to taste the salted caramel and chocolate tart which is on the Time Out list of 100 things to eat in London. There was silence followed by a group groan.
This tour is a whole lot of fun with a group of strangers who feel more like new friends after just a morning together. That is the power of food. For four hours we walked, talked, ate and laughed. We rounded up the morning with a pot of tea – how could any food tour in the UK not end with a decent cuppa? – and had a vote for favourite foods. The bacon sandwich was a popular winner with the bread and butter pudding coming in second place. Would I cross town for these two items? Yes indeed. You should too.
Eating London Tours www.eatinglondontours.co.uk
I was invited to take part in an Eating London tour. All views expressed are my own.