Food maps society, its habits and changing demographics. London has gone multi ethnic; sushi curry jerk shawarma. Traditions are changing. Fish and chips have proliferated; deep fried is a universal. But whatever happened to the old East End staple, jellied eels? Everyone I asked about them wrinkled their nose up.
Except the old timers. George at the caff on my corner who is 89 and wears a flat cap, cried ‘Jellied eels!’ enthusiastically when I mentioned them. ‘I go every Tuesday up to Barney’s in Aldgate and I get a tub for myself. I’ll take you next time if you like.’
Barney’s is tucked behind the Tower of London in a back alley. Mark Button’s father bought Barney’s in 1970 when it was just a stall selling cockles and mussels and jellied eel in styrofoam cups in Aldgate market, and turned the business into a wholesale operation. They make jellied eels in the back, one of only four jellied eel producers left in the country. It’s simple, Mark explained. Cut off the eels’ heads, gut them, boil them and the gelatin of the fish sets as a natural preservative. A bit of extra gelatin is sometimes added in. Eels were the original fast food before pubs served grub, when eels were cheap and so plentiful they used to jump out of the river at you. ‘Now they are dearer than salmon,’ said Mark. These days eels have almost vanished from the Thames and there’s a virtual moratorium on fishing them in Britain; Barney’s gets most of theirs from eastern European eel farms.
‘Thirty three years ago when I started, we supplied hundreds of seafood stalls in the east End, from the Kent coast up as far as Lowestoft,’ said Mark. Most of these have disappeared. All the pie and mash and jellied eel shops in Brick Lane have long gone too. ‘The area has changed,’ Mark said, without rancour. ‘The advent of Shoreditch. It’s all trendy breweries and people who have spent hundreds of thousands on flats.’
Similar gentrification has engulfed F. Cooke on Broadway market in Hackney. Bob Cooke, ‘fourth generation pie and eel man,’ still runs the shop, which was established in 1900. He has salt-and-pepper bristle hair and big tombstone teeth. I met him on a slow Monday afternoon. He was sitting with a mug of tea and a packet of Rich Tea biscuits. ‘We had a good day, alright today with the pies,’ he told me. ‘But they aren’t eel people round here no more. Gentrification, that’s it. The East Enders have pissed off to Essex.’
Bob ladled a quivering lump of jelly and eel out of a big tub with a sucking noise. ‘Be careful of the bones,’ he warned me, as I began to eat. ‘They’re jagged. I had a customer once who swallowed a bone and it cut his throat to pieces, there was blood everywhere.’
The pale aqua jelly was soft set, soothing and refreshing; the eel was delicate and dense fleshed. I shook over a few drops of ‘Vinney’, the traditional accompaniment of chili vinegar. ‘This is actually delicious,’ I said, surprised. Bob grinned. ‘Do you want to try the stewed ones, with mash and liquor?’ Hot eels with a good and lumpy mash scraped against the side of the plate soused with a gallon of gooey white sauce with parsley. Also good but perhaps better saved for a rainy winter day.
There used to be another F. Cooke shop on the Kingsland Road until a few years ago. ‘But my cousins retired, bought themselves a couple of Bentleys and off they went. One lives in Epping, the other lives just up of Margate — Broadstairs.’ Bob lamented the passing of a community. He doesn’t know any of the people in the market the way he used to. ‘Would you ever think about moving out to the suburbs with the other eel people?’ I asked. Bob shook his head emphatically. ‘Someone could offer me ten million pounds and I wouldn’t move.’ His daughter, though, has a pie shop on Harold Hill, ‘just this side of Romford. I make all the pies for her, she’s doing well. Had it a few years now.’
‘It really is like a big mafia,’ Graham Poole, proprietor of M. Manze on Peckham High Street, told me. Graham is the grandson of Michele Manze, an Italian immigrant who founded the Manze dynasty that once had fourteen pie and mash shops in London and still have three today. ‘We’re all cousins and intermarried. Plenty of Manzes married Cookes.’ But he admitted he didn’t want his daughter to go into the business. ‘I know how heavy and hard the work is,’ he said, ‘We’ve spent all our money sending her to a good university. She’s got a degree in neuropsychology.’
Graham was less despondent about the decline in popularity of jellied eels than his cousin Bob Cooke. The Manze branch on Tower Bridge Road is so perfectly preserved, with its authentic late Victorian wood, marble, and green and cream tiling, that Heston Blumenthal and Rick Stein have both filmed there. In the 1980s Manzes was discovered by yuppies from the city. ‘We’d have cabs pulling up, them with the big mobile phones, they couldn’t believe how cheap lunch could be.’
Increasingly supermarkets are stocking jellied eels, even outside of London, and sales are climbing as a new generation rediscovers a cheap and easy protein. But the dish has yet to catch the edge of a foodie revival, ‘and become like a status symbol for the Jay Rayners,’ mused Graham. ‘I mean what are you going to do with it? Add spring onion?’ And there’s still the image problem of something slithery encased in something wobbly. Graham admitted to me he himself had never actually eaten jellied eels, ‘stewed eels, yes, but the jellies — nah, I just can’t.’
Tradition and history is ebb and flow. Waves of immigrants have washed into London and opened restaurants that have given us the new classic staples of spag bol, chicken tikka masala and chop suey. Food trends spawn as mysteriously as elvers in the Sargasso Sea. And somewhere along the line, jellied eels slid out of fashion.