Eating my Way around East London:
We all have our passions and enthusiasms. As may be evident, I love food. And I love heritage. So, what could be better than an opportunity to join an Eating London Food Tour, learning more about East London and enjoying some of the old and (relatively) new food destinations in that part of town. Like many Londoners, I really don’t spend enough time learning about my own, wonderful City. And I am always thrilled when I get the opportunity to do so – it seldom disappoints.
The East London tour starts in Spitalfields – an area I’ve known pretty much since I moved to London over 30 years ago. I’d never quite joined the dots though and worked out that Spitalfields took its name from an abbreviation of Hospital – the Hospital and Priory of St. Mary’s Spittel that was founded there in 1197. I know the area best for the Market and for a handful of restaurants – St John Bread & Wine where our tour began.
I can’t think of a better way to start the day than with a bacon butty – especially one made with Gloucester Old Spot bacon and served with a generous dollop of home made Ketchup. Fergus Henderson the Executive Chef of St John was one of the first people to champion a revival of British food and nose to tail dining, with Bread and Wine originally planned to provide a bakery for the group of restaurants, now offering a casual dining breakfast, lunch and supper menu.
On to The English Restaurant, housed in one of the oldest 17th century houses in the area. The restaurant is relatively new, but the owners have carefully recreated a traditional dining room using salvaged material from The Bell public house and wonderful oak panelling salvaged from Christchurch Spitalfields. They’ve created a menu which focusses on classic English food so that you can dine on whitebait, steak and onion pudding and finish with bread and butter pudding. Or, if you are feeling VERY self indulgent and book yourself on the Eating London Walking Tour, you can enjoy a breakfast-dessert of bread and butter pudding…
East London is an area that has always provided a home for immigrant communities and in the sixteenth and seventeenth century it was home to the Huguenots – French protestants escaping religious persecution. Many were skilled weavers and brought new skills and ultimately wealth to the area. The Huguenot merchants houses still dominate the area – particularly fine buildings dating back to the 17th century.
Perhaps in a nod to the French community of Spitalfields we spend some time at Androuet, a French Fromagerie on the edge of the market. Though, despite the amazing selection of cheese from France and the rest of mainland Europe and our French hosts, we stuck to English produce – Stilton, Cheddar and a creamy cheese called Baronet. All delicious, each cheese is selected for the excellence of its artisan producer then carefully stored and managed so that what you buy is in perfect condition. Quite different to anything you’ll find in the Supermarket.
But it is the Jewish community which is credited with introducing fish and chips to London – in 1860, the first fish and chip shop was opened in London by Joseph Malin (probably based on fried fish popular in Portugal and Spain combined with fried potatoes popular with the Irish community).
By the 19th century, the east end of London had become sanctuary to a large Jewish community escaping persecution in Eastern Europe. They set up schools, synagogues, and soup kitchens to feed the poor including the way out soup kitchen (there is a way in too of course!), which was still serving people in the 1950s. And, the first fish and chips shop!
Poppies’ owner, Pat ‘Pops’ Newland, has been serving fish and chips in the East End for over 50 years, using a traditional recipe for fish and chips. He’s even had his own health and safety approved newspaper printed, so that we can enjoy our fish and chips wrapped as they used to be. This year, they have won the Independent fish and chip shop of the year award…and from what we tasted that is well deserved. Our cod came in a crisp light batter and while the chips may not have been triple fried in duck fat they were splendidly golden and tasty. I liked all the 1950s touches around the cafe too.
No walking tour of London would be complete without a stop in a pub. We went to Pride of Spitalfields where those with a stronger stomach than me were able to taste a range of real ales and ciders. Me, I just focused on taking pictures of Lenny the pub cat!
Pride of Spitalfields is a good example of the pubs I grew up with. Originally the popularity of brewing beer was (or so they say) because water was unsuitable for drinking. And, public houses were literally where you went to quench your thirst! Pubs could sell ale but not spirits – and were encouraged as a way to minimise the consumption of Gin(!). Now, that kind of pub was well before my time but the pubs of my childhood seldom sold any more food than a packet of crisps and (perhaps) a few sandwiches, sausage rolls and pies. Pride of Spitalfields is an ale house and keeps to that tradition of selling alcohol rather than focussing on food.
The curry houses of Brick Lane are something of a mystery to me. They ALL seem to have won an award for curry house of the year. Brick Lane is the London home of Bangladeshi and North Indian food thanks to an influx of Bangladeshi migrants during the 20th century. While there are plenty of options, quality isn’t always great so it was great to be taken to Aladin where the chef has been making curries for over 25 years. We sampled three curries – from mild to very hot – vegetarian bhuna (mild), lamb parthia (medium) and chicken madras (hot).
On to one of the two famous beigel bakeries in East London. At beigel bake we all indulged in a salt beef and pastrami beigel – the sort of comfort food that seems totally justifiable. Although I have to say, by this time I was feeling quite full.
Walking through Shoreditch looking at the street art was a welcome break from all the eating. It is the sort of thing you can easily miss if, like me, you are on your way somewhere and have your head down checking google maps.
There’s everything from a carefully encapsulated Banksy car to a rather fine crane by Belgian artist Roa. Urban legend is that Roa’s plan was to paint a heron, but learning that the crane is sacred to the Bengali community who live in this area, changed as a tribute to local people.
There are neat additions to street signs and tiny bits of art work on every corner. Definitely worth a second visit for me, by now I felt as if in the past I’d been walking around with my eyes wide shut.
Our final stop was in ‘happening’ Shoreditch. We went to Pizza East for a welcome cup of tea. It’s a large warehouse in a converted biscuit factory with long wooden tables. The salted caramel and chocolate tart that we enjoyed with our tea was delicious without being in any way prissy. Just a wonderfully flavoured caramel topping with a big dollop of cream on traditional shortcrust pastry. A fitting end to a tour of East London.
And so our four hour food tour was over. We all left feeling unable to eat another mouthful. Even as a London resident for over thirty years I discovered new things, tried old favourites and got the chance to cross a few more off my own personal bucket list.
Eating London Food Tours comes highly recommended. If you are a Londoner like me, you’ll enjoy an insight into one of London’s most diverse areas. If you are visiting, it’s a great way to see a part of London that perhaps needs more than a gentle stroll to get to grips with the maze of history, culture and food, experiencing some of the best there is in a short space of time.
I was a guest of EatingLondonTours – you can join one of their walks for £60 including all the food and drink – quite a bargain I think!