A necessary visit back down to London to visit my ever more frail mother who at the age of 98 still lives alone but with ever increasing needs that she can no longer provide herself, gave me the opportunity to visit an old friend of mine, in fact the last one that I know of who still lives in the capital.
He still lives in the East End where I grew up though the house he lives in is unrecognizable from how I remember it. This area has been, as have so many others have, gentrified. He has lived in this house all his life, having inherited it from his parents and is the only true eastender in the street.
It’s only a couple of streets away from the one my wife lived in with her parents when we first met in the sixties and I remember well it had an outside toilet and gas -yes gas – lighting. These properties in this mad world are fetching over a million for a semi and yet travel a quarter of a mile south of here and you enter an unrecognizable world (to me now) that looks like the picture one conjures up of the stereotype that the word Londinistan projects.
Where my mother and sister live in west London looks equally surreal being more like a Baghdad stage set.
It’s not that London has never had immigrant areas. Certainly the east end has always had its Indian, Chinese and Jewish enclaves but it’s the scale of it all now – whole boroughs seem now to be almost completely inhabited by one group or another. I was not unaware of this as I still travel up as mentioned to see my mother but I haven’t seen close up the east end for some time and the change is unbelievable.
But that is not what I wanted to discuss or rather talk about here.
I stayed over at my old friends and we went out for a drink in the evening and I naturally asked as to what pubs still existed that we used to visit in the ‘old’ days, very few as it transpired and none that provided the entertainment of the sixties that were packed with people wanting to see many of the stars of the day. I will do a small article on them in the future.
We had a drink or two and I asked if any of the old eateries were still plying their trade. By that I meant the pie and mash shops and jellied eel stalls we used to frequent on our way home after a night out. Amazingly a couple were, as much a result of the new residents in the now upmarket areas wanting to try “peasant food” for the experience as anything else, but nonetheless still there.
F Cooke, the pie and mash shop in Borough market, is still going after a hundred odd years, helped no doubt by the rejuvenation of a market that very nearly disappeared. It was down to one fruit and veg stall and is now a gourmet foodies hunting ground or so I’m told.
Cooke’s are the most famous name in the pie and mash shop world – though devotees of Manzes in south London would dispute that.
The Borough market shop was the first set up 1910 by F Cooke but left it in the hands of his brother to open the shop that was to become the more famous. The one in Kingsland Road Dalston in 1919 – this was the shop we most used and always seemed to be that bit better than the others, I was never that enamored by pie and mash but after a few pints it was always the favorite of the many in the same way as a curry might be today, the Kingsland Rd shop also did stewed eels and fruit tarts and sold live eels from the front window.
As a small boy seeing the writhing eels on a tray awaiting their fate caused mixed emotions but was very much part of the street scene of the day.
The Dalston shop had one other factor in its superiority over the other pie shops its interior, this was a work of art in tiling and mirrors and is the only shop that had what became a listed interior, sadly this branch of Cookes closed some time ago but the interior lives on in a Chinese restaurant even the marble top tables survive although I doubt the twice daily routine of spreading sawdust on the floor is still in practice. Sadly there would appear to be no photographs of the rear dining room, a larger area than the front, so I can only provide some for the front and a couple of montages to try and give a flavor as to how it looked and operated.
We didn’t go to the pie shop in Borough Market the times are not as they used to be on opening hours nor are they for our pre drinks trip to Tubby Isaacs jellied eel stall that is no longer on the corner of Petticoat Lane but a little further along.
This was also originally set up in 1919 and continues today with a line of owners going back to Tubby himself. Now Jellied eels I did like although the price has gone through the roof as a result of the ever increasing scarcity of the eels themselves and the fact they are all imported now.
Pollution in the Thames stopped commercial fishing for them and Dutch barges then brought them into Billingsgate market. When it was in its old site direct and the “poor mans delicacy” was born, as a matter of record I enjoyed the eels but to my mind, much of the flavour of many shellfish and the like was lost when the laws regarding sterilization were changed, I think in the seventies.
Such items such as cockles never seemed to me the same again. Regarding jellied eels being a poor man’s delicacy, they are in danger of becoming the reverse and/or disappearing all together from the menu of London’s east end.
There was just one other eaterie worth mentioning. It was the E & A salt beef bar at Stamford Hill in north Hackney on the borders of Tottenham and Stoke Newington.
This was without doubt my favorite nosh. It’s a very orthodox Jewish area and the E & A bar was an institution for many of us who lived in the area, and again although Blooms in Whitechapel was always touted as the best for salt beef, I can assure you the E & A bar won easily, the main advantage it had was turnover.
We, as was the style of the day, would meet at the bar before going on down to the Tottenham Royal, the dance hall just down the road. The man who carved the salt beef for the sandwiches was to be seen in the front window and you would never buy a sandwich when he only had a small piece left to carve, so we would wait until he called out for a fresh slab to be sent up from the kitchens still steaming before going inside and ordering whilst someone else went to the opposite counter to order the lemon teas in the tall glass containers in a metal holder.
My Jewish friends would however often eschew the buying of salt beef sandwiches and I didn’t discover why until I had to meet one of them at the bar one lunchtime before going of somewhere. When I went inside I was called by my friend into the small dining area they had at the rear where he was sitting down eating a plate of salt beef with some potato Lutkas and the ever present lemon tea, I asked him (he became my best man when I got married years later).
Nah he said, you get twice as much on the plate as you do in a sandwich for the same price, and so you did. Only one miserable photo could be found of the E & A bar from 1981 It closed not many years later, I know not why, as in this area it was always guaranteed a trade.