Mid-afternoon at Hughes’s Pie & Mash shop, in Ruislip, north west London. A bit too late for lunch, far too early for dinner. You’d think the place would be deserted, but there’s a steady stream of customers – eat in and takeaway. There are only a few things on the menu, but these punters don’t care. They’re here for some classic London cuisine: pies, mash, eels and liquor.
Paul and Laura Hughes opened their Pie & Mash shop at the start of the Coronavirus crisis. Talk about bad luck – nothing like this had happened for a hundred years. Just as they were finally ready to start trading, after several years of planning, everything shut down and everyone was told to stay at home. It seemed their timing could hardly have been any worse.
But then word got around that they were open, and people started coming in for takeaways. Pretty soon, there were queues right down the street. Now, as London tiptoes back towards normality, plenty of people are coming here to eat in too. There’s no shortage of other fast food places in Ruislip, but local interest in Paul and Laura’s Pie & Mash shop has been huge (it was my daughter who put me onto it – her friends have been on about it for ages and she’s done a few shifts there).
When I was a kid, living in Sarf East London in the 1970s, Pie & Mash shops were everywhere, but then in 1974 McDonald’s opened its first UK branch in Woolwich, where I went to primary school. For Pie & Mash, this appeared to mark the beginning of the end. McDonald’s spawned a host of imitators and burgers became hip and trendy. Compared to these snazzy new burger bars, those plain and simple Pie & Mash shops now looked dowdy and old-fashioned. When I returned to London in the 1990s, the Pie & Mash shops I remembered from my childhood were a lot harder to find, and that was no surprise. Now there were so many other fast food places, far more modern and exotic. Who wanted boring old Pie & Mash anymore?
But lately, after a generation of slow decline, something odd has happened. Pie & Mash shops are springing up again – not just in Ruislip, where I live, but all over London and beyond. What’s going on? With so much fast food to choose from, why are Londoners returning to this old staple? I reckon it’s all to do with our renewed interest in traditional English food.
Pie & Mash shops (never restaurants) have a relatively long history. They’re a product of the Victorian age (indeed, several of today’s survivors date back to the 19th Century) and they’ve always been concentrated in the capital, though now they’re spreading into the Home Counties. Like the food, the furnishing is minimal and functional – tiled walls and floors are easy to keep clean. This trad aesthetic has aged far better than the garish décor in burger bars and suchlike. Paul and Laura’s shop may be brand new, but its timeless design is no different from Pie & Mash shops of yesteryear. The thing that makes Pie & Mash shops so stylish is that they never set out to be chic.
Although some shops serve a range of pies (including fruit pies – particularly cherry pies – with custard) the quintessential pie is minced beef, with a suet base and a flakey pastry crust. There’s nothing unusual about the mash, but the liquor (parsley and potato water) and eels (stewed or jellied) are unique. Why eels? Because until recently they were one of the few species that could survive in the filthy, polluted River Thames. Ironically, now the Thames is a lot cleaner, fish are thriving and the eel population has plummeted, so the eels in London’s Pie & Mash shops mainly come from abroad.
Like all the best grub, Pie & Mash is cheap and filling, and quick and easy to prepare, which is why Pie & Mash shops prospered in London’s old working class neighbourhoods, like Deptford in South London, Shepherds Bush in West London and, above all, the East End. So why are newer shops appearing in leafy outskirts like Ruislip, Eastcote and Sutton? Because rising prices in the city centre have pushed the old working class communities out into the suburbs. Leaseholders have been priced out, freeholders have cashed in, and Londoners who’ve migrated from the inner city to the city limits have grown increasingly nostalgic for the comfort food of their youth.
Paul and Laura are a case in point. Paul comes from Shepherds Bush. Laura is an Eastender, born in Plaistow, raised in Barking (her family come from Canning Town). They both grew up on Pie & Mash. ‘She eats jellied eels – I don’t,’ Paul tells me, as I tuck into a late lunch in their cosy shop – two pies and a big dollop of mash, drenched in liquor. ‘My dad’s from the East End and he says, “I can tell you’re from West London,” because my dad eats jellied eels as well.’ I must admit, I’m not a fan of eels – stewed or jellied – but then I’m not an Eastender. Yet Hughes’s sells loads of them. Maybe the appetite for them is growing.
There are loads of people round here like Paul and Laura, who grew up in places like Notting Hill and Paddington (once working class areas, now much posher) who still hanker after a plate of Pie & Mash. ‘There was a gap in the market,’ says Paul. ‘A lot of people noticed a gap in the market. So many people said to me, “I’ve had this idea for years,” but you’ve got to take a leap of faith.’ It’s a great business model: do one thing and do it well. Back to basics. No nonsense. They get their eels from Billingsgate, London’s famous fish market. They have a piemaker who comes in to make their pies (they do vegan pies as well, and they’ve proved very popular). They’ve had punters in from as far afield as Bath and Brighton.
What’s so refreshing about the Pie & Mash revival is, there’s nothing ersatz about it. New places like Hughes’s are no different from the old places I remember. Older places, like Goddards, where I used to eat when I was a kid, have hardly changed (Goddards is in Greenwich and nowadays Greenwich is tourist central, but though a lot of their customers are sightseers the food is just the same). For years, English food has been neglected, by the English, more than anyone. Pub grub has been on the up and up for a while now. How nice to know the humble Pie & Mash shop is also on the way back. ‘They’re popping up everywhere,’ says Paul. Long may it continue. I bought some eels in liquor to take away. Since Paul told me they were so popular, I thought I ought to give them another go. Still can’t do it, I’m afraid – as I said, I’m no Eastender. But the Pie & Mash was delicious. If I can persuade my wife to come along (she’s from Yorkshire) I’ll certainly be back for more.
Where to try Pie & Mash
F COOKE, 150 Hoxton Street, Hoxton, London N1 6SH
London’s oldest Pie & Mash dynasty, dating back to the Victorian era. Opened in 1987, the Hoxton shop is a relative newcomer, but it’s just as authentic as the older branches, and it still predates the area’s recent gentrification.
M MANZE, 87 Tower Bridge Road, Bermondsey, London SE1 4TW
Michele Manze came to London as a child, from Ravello in Southern Italy, and founded London’s most famous Pie & Mash shop way back in 1902. The sister shop on Peckham High Street is almost as illustrious, and the Sutton shop, established in 1998 on Sutton High Street, continues this fine old tradition in leafy South West London suburbia.
GODDARDS, 22 King William Walk, Greenwich, London SE10 9HU
Opened back in 1890, Goddards has long been a Greenwich institution, and although the shop has moved around the corner and is now patronised by tourists as much as locals, the food is still just as good, and the setting still much the same.
HUGHES’S, 280 West End Road, Ruislip, Middlesex HA4 6LS
The new kid on the block, taking this Cockney staple out into John Betjeman’s Metroland. The shop’s success during lockdown and beyond, and the changing demographic of London and the South East, suggests the future of Pie & Mash may lie out in the Home Counties, in Essex and Middlesex, rather than Inner London, where it originated.