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With beautiful interiors and classic menus, pie and mash shops have been rediscovered by a new generation

Evening Standard logo Evening Standard 10/10/2018 Patrick Galbraith
a hotel room © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited

I’m still not quite sure how I hit upon the Twitter account but since my first visit to @pienmashporn it has become a guilty habit.

Barely a day goes by without me checking out the latest hot shots of London’s original fast food — jellied eels, mash and pies. During the 19th century the capital was home to hundreds of pie and mash shops selling cheap carbohydrate and protein to the working classes, the fish fresh from the Thames. Most have now gone — including the historic A Cooke on Goldhawk Road, immortalised in the film Quadrophenia — priced out by changing food fashions, rising rents and, allegedly, a surfeit of cocaine in UK waters which made the eels hyperactive and hampered their ability to migrate. But the 15 shops that remain, including outposts of the once-great chains run by the Manze, Cooke and Arment families, have been taken up by the capital’s food-obsessed youth, intrigued by their ‘authenticity’.

Photos of the plain fare on offer can be posted to social media in ironic counterpoint to wilfully prettified Insta dishes, while the shops’ interiors are often gorgeous. London’s oldest surviving shop, M Manze, is a case in point. Opened in Tower Bridge in 1891, it is one of three remaining branches of a family business that was once almost four times as big. The Walthamstow branch, opened in 1929, is also beautiful, and was awarded Grade II listed status in 2013 for its ‘remarkably complete’ interior. Some shops have moved with the times, voluntarily or otherwise.

a green and white plate sitting on a table: Pie and mash © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited Pie and mash

The Dalston branch of F Cooke, with a listed interior including a glazed dome, beautiful blue tiling and decorativemetal eels snaking around mirrors, became a dim sum restaurant called Shanghai for 35 years. This autumn it will reopen as Darling, the first solo venture of Sager + Wilde’s Charlotte Wilde — a wine bar, restaurant and multi-use space described as a ‘launch pad for creatives’. Harringtons in Tooting famously hosted an immersive production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd in 2017. I asked Cheryl Arment, chatelaine of pie and mash mecca Arments on Westmoreland Road in Southwark — another survivor of a once-great family chain — her position on wine and entertainment. "We sometimes review the menu but all people really want is old-fashioned eel, pie and mash," she laughed. Arments no longer shift 5,000 pies on a Saturday like they did in the 1980s but Cheryl told me that business has been on the up over the past two years and that "the mail order market is booming" with pies being delivered, via their website, to Herfordshire, Hull and beyond.

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Millennials developing an interest in Britain’s culinary heritage are driving new demand. And the shop is often full of children. "Lately, we’ve started doing a baby bowl which is basically just mushed-up pie and mash. The babies then graduate to having a bit of their parent’s pie and eventually get their own." Some of the older generation may be getting priced out but there is a fierce sense of loyalty among those who remain. "Coming here is a pilgrimage," says Cheryl. "I’ll never forget the woman who said that when she was little her dad brought her to Arments and now she brings him." Two days later, in Peckham, I sat across the table from Graham Poole, who runs Manze with his brother Rick. As I sipped my tea a girl who’d been scrubbing the counter pulled back the shutters. Sunlight streamed through the window, illuminating polished benches, chequered cream and green tiles, and an antique wooden clock. There is something overwhelming about the perfectly preserved elegance of Manze — it’s like walking into a club in St James’.

The founding father of Manze was an Italian immigrant who married the daughter of Robert Cooke, London’s original pie man. Poole explained that all the great pie families are related. And as far as he is concerned the shops are here to stay. The Tower Bridge branch of Manze is "always busy with businessmen and tourists" while the clientele of the Peckham shop has evolved to reflect "changes in the area. New people move in, see the queue and want to know what it’s all about. Then there are regulars who often come twice a week." But even Manze has moved with the times, offering a vegetarian pie ‘which is actually vegan’. After punters asked about the menu’s nutritional values ‘we sent the food for analysis’, says Poole. "The fat and salt content is really low." These centuries-old recipes are ‘absolutely’ compatible with 21st century health fads.

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Like Arments, Manze has moved into mail order. "It represents about 30 per cent of our business," he says. "We draw a line at shipping to northern Scotland, though. It’s too far for a pie to travel." When I raised my concern about London’s cocaine-ravaged eels, he assured me that the fish are now imported from Europe. Will Brexit affect the eel business? But Poole cuts me off: he needs to reply to an email from the BBC about Michael Portillo popping round for a pie.

Pete Townshend sitting at a table: Pete Townshend  © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited Pete Townshend 

Mid-morning the following day, I handed over £7 for a pie and hot eels in Arments. A gaggle of teenage girls chatted in the corner and a middle-aged couple sat across from me. There was a monkfish-like meatiness to the eels while the pastry was crisp in all the right places. My tea was fine but I suspect three pints of London Pride would have been a better accompaniment. I finished my food and looked around. Above the benches a photograph of some Arment ancestors smiled down on the growing queue of customers, while behind the counter the current generation of pie makers rolled, filled, crimped and stewed in a ritual that’s remained unchanged for decades.

a sign above a store: Pie and mash shop © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited Pie and mash shop

Next to the till sat a blue English Heritage plaque recognising the shop’s contribution to the community. I left, delighted that this culinary culture, albeit reduced, has survived in this ever-changing city through a combination of doing what its always done and tentative evolution. Then I uploaded a picture to @pienmashporn.

"Shocker," responded another user, "you should never put the pie and eels on the same plate."

Gallery: The UK's best fish and chip shops [Lovefood]

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