9am. My stomach was growling so I wolfed down a bowl of cereal before rushing out the door. Big mistake. Arriving in Spitalfields Market an hour or so later, I was greeted by Ollie, my friendly and amusing guide for the morning. We were joined by 9 lovely others – a family of four from Sheffield, a couple from South Carolina in the States, another American and a young couple from London. We went around the group and everyone introduced themselves before we set off to our first food stop on Eating London’s East End Food Tour. There were seven more stops to come, and my belly really wasn’t prepared.
Four hours of eating, talking and walking later, I was feeling super stuffed (and regretting that bowl of cereal I’d scoffed down earlier), but very content. My head was buzzing with new information about the East End’s remarkable history, which I’d learnt thanks to my knowledgeable and passionate guide, and I had sampled some of the best-loved foods in the area. Having leisurely strolled through the most popular and quietest streets and sights of Spitalfields, Brick Lane and Shoreditch, stopping off at restaurants and eateries every 20 minutes or so, I was feeling enriched and I’d even made some new friends.
Without giving too much about the tour away, here are 5 cool things I discovered in this time:
You can still get fish and chips served in newspaper
Fish and chips are a national institution, and there are about 10,500 chippies in England, but very few still serve chips in the good old-fashioned style because of a law that came into effect in the 1980s which ruled that it was unsafe for food to come into contact with newspaper ink without grease-proof paper in between. Enter Poppies. A chippie with a distinctive 50s style, which even has custom-made newspaper wrapping specially for its chips, with edible ink! Voted Best Independent Fish and Chip Restaurant in the UK for 2014, it has got a nostalgic interior, with a jukebox, staff in retro uniforms, and old cockney slang printed on the walls. We enjoyed cod, chips and mushy peas here. Fish and chips together as a dish, we learned, was invented in the East End – a young Jewish boy in the 1800s who began selling them both from a basket hung around his neck.
Real bagels are boiled before baking
…to give them a tender chewiness inside, but a glowy medium brown crust. I found this out when we visited Beigel Bake on Brick Lane. It’s a Jewish-owned bagel shop that’s been there since 1977, tracing back to a time when East London was inhabited mostly by Jewish families. Open all the time (24 hours a day, 7 days a week) Beigel Bake makes over 7,000 bagels a day, and has become incredibly popular because it is cheap and its produce is so fresh. We tasted the salt beef bagels; the beef was so soft it melted in the mouth, and the bagels were really light – no wonder there are queues at every time of day. Beigel Bake has its own great story – read about it here.
Fact: mass-produced bagels that you get at the supermarket are often machine-rolled and baked in steam, producing a doughy and often sweet interior. If you see raised dots or grate marks on the next bagel you eat, it’s a sign that it came from a big factory rather than a bagel shop.
Wedding cakes made of cheese do exist
One of our pit stops was Parisian cheese shop Androuet. Makers of cheese since 1909, the variety on offer in the Spitalfields shop is astounding. Androuet served up some English cheeses for us to try, which were paired with dried fruit and nuts. Did you know that blue cheeses such as Stilton or Gorgonzola are injected with penicillin as part of the cheese-making process? Me neither. A large poster in the shop caught my eye too, as it was advertising giant cakes made of cheese for weddings.
All bread and butter pudding isn’t yucky
Stopping off at the independent, family-owned English Restaurant was my highlight of the tour. I was pleasantly surprised by its bread and butter pudding with rum custard. The English Restaurant is housed in a listed building; and until the demise of the Spitalfields wholesale fruit and vegetable market, in 1991 it was used as a trader’s warehouse and store. Prior to that, it was famously known as the Percy Dalton building, a nut house.
There’s an eatery in London that makes its ketchup using apples
St. John Bread & Wine, that is, which is famous for its delicious bacon sarnies – made using all parts of the pig, served in homemade bread along with a secret-recipe ketchup (which we were told contains apples). The meat is cured in brine for two weeks and the bread is char-grilled and buttery. St. John Bread & Wine is also housed in a former bank – so it was really intriguing to learn about the history of buildings as well as restaurants in the area on the tour.
It is amazing to hear and see for yourself how different cultures have made their mark on the East End – from the Bengali curry houses on Brick Lane to the newer hip joints nearer to Shoreditch. You even visit a site where Jack the Ripper once committed a murder, and taste a locally-brewed ale. In an area once known for its crime, poverty, overcrowding and grimy industry, it’s great to see rebirth, a cultural fusion and many independent companies flourishing.
Whether you’re a Londoner looking to discover more about the East End (it really is fascinating), or a tourist looking to explore this incredibly diverse area of London, this tour is a lot of fun, and it’s really insightful. Just don’t have breakfast beforehand!
Things to note:
- It’s an intimate tour – a small group means you can get to know each other and your guide
- Our guide Ollie was really knowledgeable and enthusiastic, not to mention funny
- It is s a 3.5-4 hour tour in all
- Having feasted for 4 hours until 2pm for the tour, I didn’t eat again until 8pm – that’s how full I was.
- The amount of walking: moderate, at an easy pace