Cockney cuisine

I was in my local fishmonger’s on the weekend, Steve Hatt on the Essex Road. Whilst I was waiting to be served I took a look at their list of orders for collection on the day. It was mostly fashionable seafood for smart local restaurants – I noticed Ottolenghi were due to pick up 2kg of razor clams and 3kg of king prawns. But there was also one entry that read:

Two large bowls of jellied eels – FUNERAL

Jellied eels somehow seem a more appropriate accompaniment to a funeral than baked meats. I can see the mourners exchanging regretful comments between lugubrious spoonfuls of silvery eel and golden jelly, turning away occasionally to suck on the odd piece of protuberant cartilage.

However, whilst I like seafood and I like pies, it pains me to say how much I dislike traditional Cockney grub. I think it’s fairly self-evident what’s not to like about eels, even though they are very popular with some (all of them too: my old London-born Pop used to scoff even the cartilage). But with pie and mash, what seems promising is let down by poor quality and execution.

The last time I tried a portion was at Clarke’s, down on Exmouth Market in Clerkenwell. Gritty mince, leathery pastry, insipid liquor and watery mashed potato. The application of lots of malt vinegar and white pepper got me through. It was very cheap, mind, and they were quite busy.

I don’t like being so critical of this sort of food, which I’ve always found to be one of the more reliable things to be found in the world. In fact, I can’t think of another instance where I haven’t liked the local, traditional, everyday food of a place (unless it’s featured tripe): wurstl, pizza, croque monsieur, balti, burgers, gallettes, chips and mayo, waffles, herring (pickled and smoked), tapas, salt beef, stovies, noodles, fish and chips, tacos, kebabs, knishes, dosas, phô, pasties, pelmeni (OK, perhaps I’ll make an exception for that last one – the Russian equivalent of the Cockney pie). And so on. No, I really would like to enjoy Cockney grub. But I just can’t – it’s simply no good.

P.S. It was a rewarding visit to the fishmonger. Poached cods roe, dipped in beaten egg, rolled in seasoned flour, then shallow-fried and eaten with chopped parsley and a squirt of lemon. Words fail me.

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29 thoughts on “Cockney cuisine

  1. Worm
    April 12, 2011 at 13:10

    there’s something very ‘fungus the bogeyman’ about jellied eels (or vice versa) Personally I can’t even manage to eat fish at the best of times, so cold grey fish in vinegar jelly is very low down my list of ‘must-eats’ (even lower than insects and grubs)
    Totally agree on pie and mash being underwhelming – its the liquor in particular, normally just a watery green-flecked sputum with absolutely no taste whatsoever. Unfortunately Clarke’s used to be my local P&M shop in london too. I think my favourites were either F.Cooke’s on Hoxton Street and G Kelly’s on Bethnal Green Rd and Roman Rd market

    Alison M.
    April 12, 2011 at 15:19

    I have never understood the appeal of the jellied eel. The sight of all that glutinous jelly & lumps of thing (it never quite appears to be a fish) is enough to turn me faint. Eeeurgh!

    Joey Joe Joe Jr.
    April 12, 2011 at 15:41

    Always thought jellied eels sounded disgusting, but your lovely picture at the top may have persuaded me otherwise Gaw.

    Banished To A Pompous Land
    April 12, 2011 at 15:48

    And they have no idea how to make mushy peas either. Mushy peas should be mushy, nay liquified. I don’t want little cannonballs in bright green pee, I want a puree i can stand a spoon up in.

    They call ’em Yorkshire caviar because only we know how to make them.

    There is some good food in London, but none of it ‘indigenous’. Hmmm but how many generations of immigration does it take to be an indigenous cuisine?

    Bagel anyone?

      April 12, 2011 at 16:12

      “Hmmm but how many generations of immigration does it take to be an indigenous cuisine?” What? Why bring that up, here?

      “Yorkshire Caviar” isn’t about how they make ’em anyway: and now the tartrazine’s been removed, a lot of mushy peas have gone spookily grey. No, it’s a reference to the meanness and pretension of Yorkshire folk. Not something I’ve experienced, let alone at somewhere as spectacular as “that” chip shop in Whitby. A 2-hour queue in the rain, and worth every second, for all that the oldest traceable chippy was in East London and run by Cornish people.

        Banished To A Pompous Land
        April 12, 2011 at 16:41

        Mushy peas arent supposed to be luminous James. And certainly not if you make your own. But it is a fine and an ancient art that we guarded for generations.

        I was in Edinburgh last summer and all your chippies now do fish and chips as an after thought… after the kebabs, after the pizza…

        The only good ones I found were in Callender.


          Banished To A Pompous Land
          April 12, 2011 at 16:46

          Re the thoughts on immigration. I think you totally took me the wrong way.

          I simply meant that like all great cities, generations of immigration have brought their own cuisine and it has been swallowed up to make the whole all the better.

          I’m an immigrant myself, bringing mushy peas to the USA

          Ask Joe Strummer

    April 12, 2011 at 17:03

    You all realise,do you not, that it’s the start of spargel time, on nosh (for the downing of Watney’s Red Barrel with) your time waste ye not.

    April 12, 2011 at 18:07

    Two large bowls of jellied eels – FUNERAL
    Perhaps this was a health warning?

    April 12, 2011 at 18:38

    There are at least two ways of eating eels which fit neatly within the tolerable-to-quite-nice-really range:

    (1) The Dutch, who get terribly excited about eels, or at least did until eel-catching was banned recently for conservation reasons, do a nice line in smoked eels which, if you wash them down with enough genever, aren’t particularly eel-like.

    (2) Baby eels (elvers) which only exist within a very short season and are rarely harvested these days, can be fried in batter like whitebait, and if you wash them down with a crisp white wine, aren’t particularly eel-like.

    There may be a theme developing here about what it is, exactly, that makes eating eels tolerable.

      Banished To A Pompous Land
      April 12, 2011 at 19:41

      Barendina I lived for a while in Gloucester before decamping to the USA and elver fishing on the Severn was a serious, indeed a cut-throat business. The distinctively shaped elver nets were a familiar sight on car roof racks and fishing rights and territories were fiercely defended. The catch apparently went mostly to Japan where the prices were said to be astronomical

  8. Gaw
    April 12, 2011 at 19:35

    Worm: I tried a pie and mash shop down in Vauxhall year’s ago (on the Wandsworth Road, I think) and had a similarly disappointing experience. Perhaps I should try some more though as I would like to like the stuff.

    Alison M: Totally with you on that, despite loving seafood (even the snot-like whelk – especially when dipped in some malt vinegar).

    Joey: Not my picture – not sure I could get that close.

    BTAPL and James: From childhood memories of mushy peas (served with Sunday dinner mostly) it’s the addition of a bit of bicarb that keeps them hulk-hued.

    Malty: We happened to have gargled on some spargel last night (not the white stuff though). Stunning when young and tender as it is right now. Funny how we make so little fuss over it compared to Germany and France.

    Toby: The capitalised ‘FUNERAL’ was a bit emphatic. Perhaps there’s some special preparation or packaging involved in jellied eels supplied for a wake? A black ribbon around the polystyrene?

    Barendina: Near where I grew up it’s traditional to eat elvers in an omelette for breakfast, freshly fished from the Severn. Never tried it but I’d like to have a go one day. BTW the local rugby team, Gloucester, are known as the Elver Eaters – by rather few, admittedly.

    Some people do rave about eels. But I’ve never really understood this, despite having tasted supposedly delicious smoked ones at posh restaurants.

      Banished To A Pompous Land
      April 12, 2011 at 19:49

      Absolutely Gaw. Not to give away too many secrets, but preparation of perfect mushy peas involves soaking your marrowfat peas overnight in water and bicarb.

      And in total agreement re. smoked eel. Everyone tells me they are wonderful and I must be a culinery philistine but …

    April 12, 2011 at 20:44

    It ain’t just those born within the sound of Bow Bells that are partial to a bit of watery slither. Some time ago French Himalayan expeditions being what anything French is, vainglorious pomp, would, when back at base camp expansively ask the Sherpas to return home with them, usually meaning the Arve valley, “bring the missus and Sherpalets, sort you out a job as well”. This invariably meant working as low paid skivies in the Alpine refuge huts, which can be quite large and well appointed like the new Cosmiques.
    One fine September evening, wandering into the Grands-mulets refuge after a splendid few days grasping rocks and stuff and expecting the usual froggie munch upons we enquired about that nights delectation. “It’s lamb” said Sherpa man at least I think that’s what he said. The concoction was being processed in what seemed to be a large poss tub sitting on a paella burner. Mrs Sherpa was in charge of the stirring, overseeing two medium sized Sherpalets, none of the above seemed to have been near soap or water since leaving Thyangboche.
    Sitting at the trestle table some time later and poking disconsolately at the dish of lumpy stuff AKA lamb we noticed other things, obviously not alleged lamb. My climbing partner, being from Ecclesall and therefore Joe blunt shouted “what the f..ks this, Tensing”
    “It eel, French like, you like” strangely we did, boiled lamb and eels in the style of Savoyard Asiatic, from whence came the eel we did not have the temerity to enquire.

    • Gaw
      April 12, 2011 at 21:12

      You’d need a pretty pungent mint sauce to cut through that lot. Perhaps a crumbled Kendal mint cake might serve?

    April 12, 2011 at 21:55

    Smoked eel is very good – it’s oilier than most other smoked fish. It’s a staple in New Zealand – where they still make excellent fish and chips. In Scotland the fish and chips are appalling – there’s one famous fish and chip shop in Anstruther in Fife, and people come from miles around and queue for hours for palatable fish and chips. It’s good but it’s what standard fish and chips should taste like. Fish and chips is much better in the north of England than Scotland.

    ian russell
    April 13, 2011 at 13:18

    Mushy peas…trust the northerners to add something you can’t eat with your fingers which, as any fule kno, is a great part of the enjoyment of fish and chips. That and eating them in sight of the sea, ideally watching the sun set so, London? – sorry, no.

    Try this, (the other side of sun arise)

    jonathan law
    April 13, 2011 at 14:50

    Banished: where I grew up on the Somerset Levels, illegal fishing for elvers was — and still is — a highly lucrative business. Although prices rise and fall with the population, a black-market rate of £500 a kg is not unheard of: it’s reckoned that a poacher using a large flow net (as opposed to one of the smaller hand-held nets permitted by law) can clear two or three thousand quid on a good night. I’ve even heard reports of a man making £30,000 from a few hours work one cold March morning. Mostly this used to go on along the tidal reaches of the Parrett, around Stathe and Burrowbridge (rightly or not, one pub had a particularly shady reputation). If you were out at night and saw paraffin lamps gleaming through the river mist, you’d know to mind your own business. As you say, most of the catch seems to go the Far East but dealers also sell to Germany and Holland, where the elvers are grown to full size for smoking and resale.

    I’ve had smoked eel a few times: slightly oily, delicate flavour, nothing special.

    April 13, 2011 at 15:55

    I’ve had smoked eel a couple of times and it’s quite nice, but not amazing. Just the sight of jellied eels makes me gag and since stocks are apparently very low, it seems like a criminal way to eat the last of a species. can we do no better.

    Pie and mash is usually bad because of cheap ingredients casually handed and the disgusting, snot textured and coloured liquor that gloops all over the plate, ruining everything. If the French ever want to prove that the English don’t know how to sauce food properly, then they only have to point to liquor.

    The seafood peddlars who still call at some pubs are better. Nothing better than winkles and cockles with malt vinegar from a source you’re not sure of – gives you something to blame the headache and nausea on the next day.

    April 13, 2011 at 22:37

    Winkles and cockles are alright but whelks…

    April 14, 2011 at 10:08

    Late in the day again, but are Dabblers aware of the Australian delicacy, the floater. I quote the Dinkum Aussie Dictionary (1986): ‘Floater: A meat pie which has been placed in a soup-plate full of mashed, dried, blue boiler peas and then topped with bottled tomato sauce.’
    The term was used in mid-19th century London for a suet dumpling put into soup. It also refers to a dead body found in water, an ever-popular staple of modern police procedurals.

    • Brit
      April 14, 2011 at 10:30

      Ah, good old Aussie cuisine. The one nation we can rely on to make us feel sophisticated. We must be like France to them.

      Do you remember that Python sketch about Australian wine connoisseurs?

      “Old Smokey 1968 has been compared favourably to a Welsh claret, whilst the Australian Wino Society thoroughly recommends a 1970 Coq du Rod Laver, which, believe me, has a kick on it like a mule: eight bottles of this and you’re really finished. At the opening of the Sydney Bridge Club, they were fishing them out of the main sewers every half an hour.”

    April 14, 2011 at 10:38

    Jonathan – floaters also contain gravy too – the most famous example being the boiling bowls of radioactive slop that you can drunkenly purchase from Harry’s Cafe de Wheels in Sydney.

    April 14, 2011 at 18:30

    Just a quick correction: pelmeni are *not* the equivalent of Cockney pie. Pelmeni are similar to tortellini or ravioli, while Cockney pie more resembles a sort of fried bun.

    • Gaw
      April 14, 2011 at 19:36

      Thanks Kochevnik. But I was actually drawing a comparison between the quality of the two dishes – I’ve eaten some revolting pelmeni.

    April 14, 2011 at 20:17

    The closest I’ve had to acceptable pie and mash in a traditional pie and mash ship is at Cockney’s on the Portobello Road, don’t know if they’re still there as I haven’t been for years. Much better than Manze’s on Chapel Market, which is my local place, but no better than Birds Eye frozen pies and Smash.

    • Gaw
      April 15, 2011 at 08:42

      I love a good pie, especially steak and kidney. The best I’ve had recently has been at butchers Michael Hart & Son, who have shops in Cirencester and Cricklade. Inexpensive and addictively delicious.

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