Eating for London

Never trust a travel writer
An East End food safari turns into a story of London immigration, a tale mostly told through street food.  If this is `hanging out in the hood’, I’m all for it. Faux gangsterism aside, the journey from East End boozers to bagels and baltis is compelling food history.
– summary

English wine estates are now making sparkling wines that rival French fizz. These wine tours promise rolling hills, vineyard vistas and a pleasant day out in a pocket of rural England that’s pretending to be France. It’s all perfectly picturesque but I’ve been sloshed in Sussex before. That’s how I come to be hanging out in the ‘hood’ on an East End food safari.

The best foodie forays are not just about revelling in rural charm but about opening one’s eyes to urban thrills. The Eating London Tours do just that, with full-on food safaris in sexy Soho and the gritty East End. These alternative London trails are guaranteed to make anyone feel like a country bumpkin in the big city. The East End tour, in particular, is gritty enough to conjure up brushes with shaven-headed hard men. The Firm, as the notorious Kray Gang was called, operated around here, and we’ll be trying the Firm’s favourite fish and chips. Even so, it’ll just be the fish and chips, without the enforcers, extortion or underworld ethics.  

Brick Lane mural  © Lisa Gerard-Sharp
Brick Lane mural © Lisa Gerard-Sharp

For now, I’m a Londoner adrift in the East End, far from my safe, suburban, southwest London ‘hood. Instead of hanging out with the chattering classes on the Soho tour, I’m mixing it with the East End geezers. Spitalfields Market is a melting pot where hungry hipsters meet the hoodies and henchmen and live to tell the tale. The food tour runs the gamut of gangsterdom in the old East End to hipsterdom in the new, freshly gentrified East End.

Instead of hanging out with the chattering classes on the Soho tour, I’m mixing it with the East End geezers.

Emily, our bubbly guide, tells the story of the East End through its stomach. We diligently munch bagels as Emily works her way through the waves of incomers whose foodie culture helped transformed London into a world city. From Jewish bagels, we move onto Brick Lane baltis, greedy for a different taste of immigrant culture. So far, no fishy flavours from the criminal underworld but I’m keep up my faux gangster patter in the hope it’ll come in useful.

Poppies fish & chips © Lisa Gerard-Sharp
Poppies fish & chips © Lisa Gerard-Sharp

In Poppies Fish and Chips, I’m like a fish out of water but loving it, from the mushy peas to the dodgy Kray Brothers’ memorabilia. Poppies is a throwback to post-war seaside chippies and is so retro it’s cool. Pop, the genial patron, cheerfully reminisces about the murderous Kray Brothers and shows me one of Reggie Kray’s innocuous landscape paintings, as pastel as he was saturnine. The Krays, spoken of in the same breath as the Dunkirk landings and the White Cliffs of Dover, were clearly welcome visitors here. No one demurs.   

The Krays, spoken of in the same breath as the Dunkirk landings and the White Cliffs of Dover, were clearly welcome visitors here. 

Pop sees himself as the archetypal East End geezer: “I’ve cooked for the Queen Mum but I wasn’t responsible for that fishbone that got stuck in her throat.” Take-away chips are served in edible newspaper – “handcrafted fresh because of Health and Safety, it cost me £20,000,” mutters Pop. Naturally, it’s sustainable cod, a nod to imported City Boys’ values. 

The English Restaurant © Lisa Gerard-Sharp
The English Restaurant © Lisa Gerard-Sharp

Nearby, the English Restaurant looks like a patriotic pocket of Dickensian London, the sanitised version, without Oliver Twist and grim gruel. Saved from demolition, this folksy wood-panelled townhouse serves British staples, from mutton pie to Dover sole and deep-fried oysters. The place is the right side of folksy, particularly as the food is so good. We tuck into bread and butter pudding, a hateful school dinner dish but this crème brulé topping is sublime, not Dickensian workhouse fare.

On Brick Lane, the Old Truman Brewery has gone from beer to Banksy, becoming a creative hub for style-savvy galleries, playful murals, pop up shops and politically correct street food. That’s all very well but we don’t want to hang out with the hipsters. We’re here for Brick Lane’s `curry mile’ where “83 percent of curry houses are Bangladeshi not Indian.”

Emily shepherds us into Aladin for some serious curry tasting, from mild vegetable to spicy lamb. Praised by Prince Charles, no less, this friendly, no-frills curry house is one of London’s finest. Nearby, queues around the block mean we’re at Beigel Bake, an all-day Jewish fast-food outlet. We’re full but manage more than a bite of the signature salt beef and gherkin bagel slathered in hot English mustard.

From Banglatown, the food safari sashays into Pizza East, one of the hippest Shoreditch eateries. We tuck into the famed salted caramel tart, “perfect for when your body craves salt, sugar and fat in one hit,” teases Emily. At night, this former tea warehouse works its New York loft vibe and is swamped by Negroni-quaffing hipsters. By day, some are chilling and chomping on 120 types of cereal in the Cereal Killer Café, its name a send up of the `old’ East End, a fabled crime scene where Jack the Ripper tours are still going strong.

Cereal Killer Cafe © Lisa Gerard-Sharp
Cereal Killer Cafe © Lisa Gerard-Sharp

The sickly cereal doesn’t do it for me. I’d rather go smelly French at the next stop, the House of Androuet. This superb cheese shop is run by two French brothers who cater to Francophile foodies as well as loft-living city slickers. The master-cheesemakers naughtily tempt us with Stilton and Cheddar rather than Roquefort and Reblochon. We’ve clearly moved upmarket into the land of posh cheese emporia, leaving gangsterland behind. But then we’re suddenly back in the old East End.

We pour into the scruffy Pride of Spitalfields, a regular East End boozer, to sample the English ale. The pub is as resolutely ungentrified as its patrons. Lennie, the soporific pub cat, beams at the scruffy regulars (and snubs the smug outsiders) as we compare hoppy Amber Ale and more-ish Cornish cider. We don’t even need to pay in “bees and honey” (meaning money in Cockney Rhyming Slang) as drinks are included in the tour. We haven’t got down with the gangsters, or even breakfasted with the Cereal Killers, but we are well-fed and far wiser about this slice of the East End.   

Even without blatant gangsterism, the tour has produced English vignettes that hark back to an older East End that has survived both the Blitz and City Boys’ bankerdom. And the suits who work in a “rattle and clank” (bank in Cockney) might feel at home here, too. And eat better for less “bees and honey.”

Pride of Spitalfields pub © Lisa Gerard-Sharp
Pride of Spitalfields pub © Lisa Gerard-Sharp

It’s been full-on since breakfast in St John Bread and Wine, a branch of Fergus Henderson’s nose-to-tail eating experiences. There we chomped on London’s best bacon buttie, on many a local bucket list. Between grazing stops, Emily has pointed out Jewish soup kitchens, Jack the Ripper’s haunts, pockets of Georgian gentrification, patches flattened by the Blitz, and old geezer pubs dwarfed by glass and steel towers. The tide of London’s history is unstoppable, with each wave of immigrants making way for the next but leaving a taste of their presence behind. Rural England, eat your heart out.  

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Copyright © Lisa Gerard-Sharp. All rights reserved.
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1 Comment

  1. Bianchi Layla 04/09/17

    I appreciated this interesting and wise update about new food trends in London's East End. Thanks to the writer, I am now more familiar with the area I am keen to visit.

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