One of life’s straightforward pleasures is surely that of eating a simple street snack. Enjoying the cool sweetness of an ice-cream whilst people watching on a warm evening, or biting into a just griddled sausage, breath and steam mingling on a chilly autumn afternoon, are casual and affordable indulgences, as well as satisfying to both senses and belly.
A wander around central London in search of street food these days will render slender pickings. Fairs or markets notwithstanding, where it is still possible to buy simple English food, cooked and sold (with no small amount of pride) by the same people who produced it, there is only the odd vendor selling fried sausages or the seasonally available hot chestnuts.
Historically however, London had a rich range of street snacks; anything from skewered cherries to jellied eels could be on offer. Often, though not always, this was the food of the poor. Without the financial resources to buy in quantity, discouraged from entering shops, and with few or no cooking facilities, London’s working classes were a captured market.
Unsurprisingly, this had a major impact on the type of foods most commonly sold. Cow heel, boiled sheep’s trotters and other cheap meats were perennial staples. An early fifteenth century poem: ‘London Lickpenny’, refers to hawkers selling hot sheep’s feet, beef ribs, and pies. Nearly 500 years later sheep’s trotters were still on the menu, and in the interim period, black puddings, mutton dumplings, sausages and a variety of pies, pasties and savoury puddings were all recorded as on sale in London’s streets.
Seafood, also a cheap option in previous centuries, was similarly popular. Boiled mussels and whelks, winkles, pickled herrings and oysters (which only increased in both prestige and price well into the Victorian era) all provided high protein snacks for the locals. Most ubiquitous of all were eels; sold either in pies, jellied or stewed, and cheap and plentiful until pollution had virtually wiped out the local supply by the nineteenth century.
Other common street foods sold by hawkers (also sometimes known as costermongers) included rolls, oat-cakes, nuts, and sweeter treats like pancakes, baked apples, gingerbread and muffins. Dairy products such as cheesecakes, whey, syllabub and fresh milk were popular, as were many different fruits. The term costermonger literally means apple seller; ‘costard’ being a popular thirteenth century variety of apple. Two centuries later, the cries of strawberry and cherry sellers were documented; pears were another locally grown favourite, and by Victorian times the exotic pineapple had become de rigueur.
In the late 1800s the journalist Henry Mayhew catalogued and commented upon London’s street food hawkers and the changing popularity of their wares. Whilst many of the old favourites like hot eels, pickled whelks, sheep’s trotters and whey were still popular, new foods such as baked potatoes, peas’-soup and Chelsea buns had entered the culinary streetscape. Some of these foods appeared as the result of changes in supply, trade, or fashion, for example, pineapples and ham sandwiches; other foods were introduced by immigrants. Fried fish (soon to be teamed with chips) may have been introduced by Jewish immigrants in the East End, and ice-cream was certainly brought to London by the Italians.
The variety of foodstuffs hawked in London’s streets ultimately dwindled as the result of wartime interruption and wider trends. Some, like cow heal, lost favour with the public; commercialised production changed the market for others such as dairy products; whilst some snacks, for example pies, were sold more cheaply in shops which eventually took all the trade. By the 1920s the hawkers themselves had largely disappeared from London’s streets.
Nevertheless, the vestiges of many earlier street foods can still be found in London. Pie and mash shops, also selling jellied or stewed eels, sprung up in the 1800s and currently number around 80 (largely in the East End). Their limited menus, and indeed the shops themselves, are often unaltered from this period. Fish and chip shops, almost synonymous internationally with British food, have proliferated since the first London ‘chipper’ opened in 1860. Unlike the pie and mash shops, their menus now tend to encompass a range of modern fast food staples. Another Victorian institution, the seafood stall, still sells long-time favourites: cockles, mussels, whelks and oysters. Usually established in close proximity to a pub, you can experience boiled or pickled shellfish, as could have been eaten several centuries earlier for a suitably nominal fee. But winter provides the perfect opportunity to experience an authentic, and enjoyable street food: hot freshly roasted chestnuts sold straight off the brazier. Hand warming, healthy and with a long history, they are street treat well worth keeping.
WHERE TO EAT
These places, whilst not all exactly bastions of slow food, do offer a taste of London’s favourite street dishes from previous eras. The fish and chip, and pie and mash shops emerged in the eighteenth century, and the practice of selling hot food at markets goes back a lot further.
87 Tower Bridge Rd, Bermondsey SE1. Tube: London Bridge. This is the oldest still-operating Pie and Mash shop in London, and therefore in the world. It dates back to 1892, and the furnishings and fittings are quite lovely in a basic way. The servings are generous and here you have the option of stewed eels as well as pie, mash and liquor (a parsley flavoured sauce). They say they are still using the original recipe for the beef pie.
Goddards Ye Olde Pie House
45 Greenwich Church St, Greenwich SE10. DLR: Cutty Sark. Recently refurbished but in the traditional style with green and white tiling and new wooden benches, this is a popular pie shop with a wide range of clientele. That it is in a tourist hot-spot may account for its inauthentically expanded menu, but both the beef pie and the eels are the real thing.
Cockney’s 314 Portobello Rd, Notting Hill W10. Tube: Notting Hill Gate. Small and relatively plain (no fancy tiles nor wooden benches), this establishment serves up a very pleasant pie and mash. The pastry is crisp; the filling quite generous, meaty and moist; and the parsley is clearly identifiable in the liquor. Eels are available only on Fridays and Saturdays.
69 Norwood Rd, Herne Hill SE24. Rail: Herne Hill.
This is a fabulous local ‘chipper’ with smiling gracious staff and proprietor who is genuinely interested in his customers and rightly proud of his food. Restaurant and take away are entirely separate at the front but share the kitchen whence come good chips, excellent fish, home-made tartare sauce and their special pea fritters.
The Golden Hind
73 Marylebone Lane, Marylebone W1. Tube: Bond St. The décor includes an arresting art deco fryer at the back of the room, and a genealogy of the shop ownership. Crisp golden battered fish and equally good chips, all freshly cooked, are served with jaunty efficiency.
18 Hillgate St, Kensington W8. Tube: Notting Hill Gate.
A dowdy exterior wouldn’t alert those not in the know to the excellent quality of the fish and chips. Everything is cooked to order. The fish is moist and firm with a thin coating of excellent crispy batter, and also available are Greek dips and mushy peas.
Borough Food Market
West of Borough High St, Southwark SE1. Tube: London Bridge. Also known as London’s larder (and a finely stocked one at that), Borough operates every Friday and Saturday. Stalls trade in traditionally produced or artisan foods and the regional specialities include not only some England’s best, but also those from other countries. This diversity and quality is reflected in the snacks on offer, which include rare breed sausages and traditionally reared free-range chicken wraps, as well as wild mushroom risotto and chorizo and spinach soup.
Various places. (For more details see website: http://www.lfm.org.uk/)
This is another type of excellent place to get good regional snack foods and drinks. The produce is all local (it must be grown or produced within 100 miles of London), seasonal and usually of high quality. There are not usually a large variety of snacks on offer, but you can get things like burgers you can trust, delicious cakes and hot mulled cider.
Malia Dewse is a Slow Food member, and founder of the traditional London food website EdibleLondon.
Photo: Pies and liquor