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Wednesday, December 2, 2015

London Food History: Eel, Pie And Mash Shops

de bene esse: literally, of well-being, morally acceptable but subject to future validation or exception

A potted history of pie

The earliest pies are thought to have originated in Ancient Egypt circa 2500 BC, made from ground oats or wheat wrapped around a honey filling — perhaps the food that sustained them through the building of the pyramids. But it was the Greeks who first developed a recognisable pastry made with flour and water, and then the Romans — circa the second century BC — who started to play with a range of fillings and create the meat pies that are common today. It’s with the Roman conquest of Britain, beginning in 43 AD, that pies made it to our shores.

London street food

Fast-forward to the Victorian era and pies have become popular street food — there were no burgers or ‘dogs back then. Lacking the funds for premises, several hundred so-called piemen would walk the streets selling their wares, particularly in east and south-east London. They came with a number of different fillings including meat and fruit but most commonly eels.
Eels were particularly common (and thus cheap) in London at the time. They were one of very few fish that could survive in the heavily-polluted Thames and other London rivers. And more arrived from Europe into Billingsgate fish market, which started on the banks of the Thames (close to modern day Monument Station) in the 16th century.

Pie and mash shops

Gradually, pie and mash moved off the streets and into premises, giving birth to the ornate Victorian shops which we still see today. It’s thought that the first shop opened in 1850 — though it isn’t named — and before long were commonplace.
These shops would also sell the Cockney classic jellied eels, and usually come with stalls outside selling live eels to be cooked at home. Inside they would have marble floors and counters — typical for the time, but unmistakably grand when viewed today. The walls would usually be covered in paintings and later photographs, with floors strewn with sawdust to gather up the eel bones that were spat out.
It was in these shops that the offering was tweaked and modernised. Minced beef or lamb with onions became a more popular — and still affordable — pie filling than eels, while mash quickly gained popularity as an accompaniment to bulk out the dish. Eels still played a crucial part though — the water used for stewing them was flavoured with parsley to create eel liquor, which tends to be a lurid green colour and is served with the pies in place of gravy. continue
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