Nothing in the world could better represent the good old East End of London then a classic plate of pie 'n mash bathed in liquor with a side of eels. Ok, so admittedly it's not for everyone and if you are anything like me, eels make you squeamish. This aside, I am a great believer in preserving tradition, especially those that seem to be fading fast. Pie 'n Mash is one of the most authentic traditions that is exclusively London-based and it, sadly, is no longer remotely as popular as is used to be which is a great shame.
'F. Cooke' (established in 1900) is the second oldest Pie 'n Mash shop in town. Ironically the oldest (established in 1898) was originally owned by his Grandfather, but sold to another family. Speaking to the man behind the counter, his pride was quick to see when I asked for just a pie with mash and no liquor, it was plated simply with an enormous dollop of gluey old-school mashed potato and when I asked if he had any gravy he replied "No gravy, just liquor". I felt I didn't want to cause him offence and so I placed the pie down at my table and my Mum and I proceeded to tuck in. The meat inside was juicy mince, not so much gravy but a natural juice that flowed glistening and clear when the pie was cut into. The pastry was unlike any I had eaten before but was delicious and really very enjoyable. The ratio of meat filling to pastry was absolutely spot on, but then again we aren't dealing with amateurs here... This is the stuff of 110 years worth of tradition and the very thought that it could soon disappear, is utterly depressing.
So what happened? Well over the years all the workers and communities from the East End that used to eat pie, liquor and eels have since moved. Property prices rocketed, jobs we lost or created elsewhere and times changed. The East End is no longer a shady part of town where the Krays used to rule, where Pearly Kings and Queens would entertain and communities were tight-knit and largely English. It has instead become a real melting-pot of multi-culturalism, expensive houses favoured by city high-flyers and a multitude of chic restaurants and bars that are among some of the top destinations in London. No wonder more humble food cannot compete and beyond competing, it the lack of demand that is the real problem. Does anyone want to eat pie ‘n mash anymore?
Whilst not everyone likes a double portion of carbs with jellied eels and a bizarre green sauce, but this is part of our culture and it is important to preserve what little food culture London has. People have switched to eating fast food, convenience food and food, well, that can’t really even be described as food. Granted most of us are foodies that are smart enough to know the difference between good food and bad, but somewhere along the line, the people that were the key supporters of pie ‘n mash, seem to have migrated elsewhere and I feel we should make every effort to recruit new followers. If a shop has been around for 110 years then surely that tells you something about it’s demand? The owner, who is the Grandson of the original proprietor, Mr F Cooke, says that the demand is nowhere near what it used to be.
I asked the owner what kind of people eat here and he said it was mainly locals and Brits that came here. I also asked if he had many tourists come by, believing that perhaps Americans and Japanese come to pay homage to what is essentially an institution and surprisingly he said they didn’t. He said “A few Italians, the odd Spaniard and that’s about it really…” He was a lovely man and friendly too. I told him we were Iranian and he joked if we were related to the Shah, which made me laugh. I told him I would definitely be back again and bring more friends with me and he smiled and thanked us. Just as we were leaving, a German family came in and placed their ordering asking “’Zis is all homemade, ya???” to which the owner replied “Of course it is! Everything is home made 100%” – and there you have it, if that is not argument enough for us to support places like F.Cooke more than we do, then I don’t know what is.
F.Cooke historic Pie ‘n Mash shop is located in Broadway Market and I would thoroughly recommend you visit the shop. Where else in London could you get a full plate of homemade food for as little as £3.60??? “Rule Britannia!” I say… There is plenty of tradition left in London, all we have to do is nurture it and do everything we can to preserve it, because whether or not you are English or Iranian like me, England is our home and it’s traditions are OUR traditions and we should work hard to maintain them as best we can.