I’m ambivalent about guided tours. I suspect that the locals are sniggering at us as we are herded around city streets, and I always want to linger longer than time allows at each stop. Yet I also like having all the information in situ, which would take hours to research myself, and wouldn’t have the same impact as when I am standing on the spot as, say, where one of Jack the Ripper’s victims was found – which is where I was during the fabulous Eating London Tour last month.
Eating London is a lovely combination of food and history – how could I refuse an invitation to indulge in both? Along with tantalizing tastes of some of the foods, which have helped to make London’s East End the melting pot it is today, we were fed tidbits of history by our lively guide, Nicole. Despite a steady drizzle most of the morning, both my mind and my body were engaged and well fed, so that the weather really didn’t matter. Nicole’s wide smile substituted quite nicely for the sunshine, and as she’s Australian, you can tell that her passion for the area and its bounty was really genuine….I think you can tell from this snatch of video (I’m hopeless at video!)
After our eclectic group assembled in Spitalfields Market and we all introduced ourselves, we were off for what I can, hand on heart, say is the best bacon butty of my life……and I promise you that’s saying something – bacon butties are an addiction of mine (one day I may reveal how I overcame my bacon butty habit of some years back!) St. John Bread and Wine, on Commercial Street, uses specially cured bacon, and bread made to their own, secret recipe. The bread is light, the dipping sauce was perfect, and my taste buds cried out for more, but knowing an entire morning of munching was ahead of me, I made a note to breakfast there the next time I’m in London! See how that bread absorbs the flavors in the pic below?
Traipsing on, we arrived at The English Restaurant. I wasn’t looking forward to this as much as to some of our stops. We were promised bread and butter pudding, and, sad to say, school dinners killed this dish for me years ago, so I occupied myself for quite a while, taking snaps, of the classic exterior and the bric-a-brac-filled interior, until good manners dictated I eat something. Well! How stupid could I get? Finally, I understood what it is a certain friend of mine raves about. Curses on those dinner ladies for all the bread and butter pudding I’ve missed over the years! Although….I do suspect that this one, made with banana bread, and the light, sweet custard were special, and because of my preconceptions I didn’t get time to finish it … learning curve, and another place to revisit!
If you’ve read about my trip to Asturias, or my surprise discovery of the wee cheesemaker in Tenerife, then you won’t be surprised that our next stop was the one I was looking forward to most. Androuet in Spitalfields Market sells and cures cheeses, and my addiction to chocolate and bacon butties are surpassed only by my addiction to cheese. My only complaint might have been that this is a venue at which I would definitely liked to have lingered for longer! We tasted six cheeses, including a new-to-me British one, Waterloo, but we had a fascinating talk by one of the owners, Leo, about making and curing, which for me personally slotted into my new-found foodie interest. My favorite? The creamy Stilton served with caramelised walnuts. Although there has been a shop on the site since 1909, Leo and his brother, Alex, who are French, as you might have guessed from the name, took it over four or five years ago, after the success of their market stall in Spitalfields. Recent immigrants, they have a passion for English cheeses, although they sell cheeses from around Europe too – a reminder of how the East End has traditionally welcomed folk from around the world over the years, and continues to do so, making it the colorful, multi-cultural community it is today.
That rich texture of different peoples was a theme, which arose frequently in the snippets of information Nicole fed to us along our walk. We learned about the French Huguenots who brought their textile skills when they fled religious persecution, and about the Jews who arrived in the late 19th century. It’s true that immigrants have been targets of racism over the years, but largely the East End has flourished as a multi-cultural community, long before that phrase became popular. We saw a mosque which had been a synagogue, and before that a church – the only building in the world to have shared religions this way; poor houses, plaques on buildings, and details to which we would have been oblivious if we’d strolled these streets alone; we let our imaginations run riot, and imagined the plague and the great fire of the 17th century.
Then, from the depths of history we travelled to more modern history – we entered Poppies – rumoured to be the best fish and chips in England. Until I’ve tried every chippie in the country I can’t confirm that (working on it!), but they are certainly in the running. More than just Britain’s favorite food, however, Poppies is a shrine to 20th century history. Its walls are adorned with pictures and odds and ends from model Spitfires to a Bobby’s helmet, and the 60s music had me tapping my feet as if I was till in my teens………well, almost! The waitresses are dressed in sailor suits, which look like they came from the Goldwyn Follies, and Poppy, who is a very real presence (and wouldn’t I have liked to interview him!), prides himself on being able to sell the takeaways in the traditional manner, in newspaper. These papers are specially printed for the restaurant with edible ink…..for those who don’t know, fish and chips was sold that way since forever, until, I guess, those in charge of our well-being decided it was unhygienic. Poppies is, not only a dining experience, but a snatch of time travel too.
After all that eating, a drink was in order, so the next port of call was The Pride of Spitalfields Pub, and an introduction to Lennie, the famous pub mascot, who has his own Facebook Page apparently, but who was very unimpressed by our invasion….. he snoozed away our visit. As a Brit, of course, this felt familiar, the polished wood, the slightly beery odour. I passed on the ale since I’m not a huge fan of English beer, but the slurp of cider was welcome after all the eating, and for the rest of the party, who were all “furriners” I could say that it really was just like the pubs I remember from my young days!
In Aladin, by way of contrast, water was the order of the day, and lots of it, as we worked our way through the mildest curry to the relatively hot one, each one more delicious than the last. I don’t get to eat Indian food very often, so this was a real treat, and by some accounts this famous dish, imported by the peoples of the former British colonies in Asia is now Britain’s favorite.
Not only was this tour turning into an entertaining history lesson, as well as a foodie delight, but it took a turn in the direction of art, as we stopped to admire and learn the history of some of the area’s famous street art……next time I WILL take a video camera! My son, Guy, came along and was chuffed to note a piece of famous graffiti which matched one he had snapped only the weekend before in Brussels…..small world, innit?
What can I say about our penultimate stop? If I say I may never eat a bagel again except from Beigel Bake on Brick Lane, will that give you a clue as to the absolute heaven I was in? Outside of once, in New York, I realized that I had never had a “real” bagel before. Much lighter than the mass-produced stuff, I could almost have cried at the taste and texture and freshness, and that owner, Sammy (someone else I would love to interview!) had stuffed them to capacity with salted beef was the icing on the cake (or the bagel, if you prefer!) The queues, the stacks of fresh bagels just waiting to pop into your mouth, the satisfied grins of folk walking away munching and the gleaming kitchen glimpsed out back…..this wasn’t just food, it was an experience.
Another stroll, more history, this time of modern London and the pop-up shops which dot the East End, but I really didn’t think I could eat another morsel of anything – that is, until I saw the slice of salted caramel pie which was to crown our wee journey at Pizza East on Shoreditch High Street. Really didn’t think I could manage another bite, but washed down with cups of good, strong tea I just about managed it (I jest!) – it was a sweet and fitting end to a really enjoyable morning. I love the buzz around the place too, and the way it had blended the original, old building to its current purpose.
I was invited by Eating London to sample their tour, but, as they say, “all opinions are my own.” There was no pressure to heap praise, nor even to write if I didn’t feel moved. Fact is I had an excellent experience in every way. I had my favorites. It probably shows, but that’s my personal taste. I’d read great things about sister company Eating Italy, so my expectations were high so far as the food went. All were met, sometimes exceeded. I can honestly say that I would go back to eat in absolutely any of the eateries. Do check out their websites where linked, because most of them offer a lot more than what we had. Our time was limited, of course. What I hadn’t expected were the glimpses into history and art, which left me panting to know more about the area… I think I loved that it was the history of real people, but not just warring aristocracy…oh, and I didn’t eat for a long, long time afterwards!