BY CEDAR LEWISOHN / In the latest of his regular food columns, Cedar Lewisohn tastes some proper working class London grub, in the process discovering that Scotch eggs might just be “the new smashed avocado”..
Some friends were visiting from out of town and doing a kind of ‘old London’ food tour. I thought it might be fun to be a tourist in my own city, so I tagged along. The night before I met them, they’d been for fish and chips on Brick Lane. Not exactly cockles and whelks, but one classic Brit dish ticked off the list. We meet at Borough Food Market and begin the day with oysters. Mersea rock oysters, to be precise. Until the 1900s, oysters were a staple food for Londoners of all economic levels. It’s only in fairly recent times that they have become a more rarified culinary item. After the oysters, everyone was very excited by the prospect of a luxury Scotch egg. I am reliably informed by trend-spotters that Scotch eggs are the new smashed avocado. Scotchtails is a stall in Borough Market, and they certainly seem to be doing a roaring trade in high-end versions of the things.
The exact history of the Scotch egg is not clear. London’s Fortnum & Mason claim to have invented them in 1738, and the earliest printed recipe is from 1809. However, there are earlier examples of similar dishes from other parts of the world. Either way, the Scotch egg is basically a boiled egg wrapped in sausage meat and breadcrumbs, then deep fried. In the recent past, it had become a slightly sad and dejected food item, redolent of dreary railway cafeterias – something shrivelled and pathetic, found in the chilled aisle in the supermarket, made up of a thin layer of meat surrounding a hard, miserable egg. Well, that has all changed. Nowadays, Scotch eggs are all about authentic rustic field food, served in contemporary urban settings. Or something like that. Are luxury Scotch eggs hipster food? Probably. Does it matter? No.
Feeling that we could still handle another course of fine British fare, my tourist friends and I headed to Goddards in Greenwich for some pie, mash and eels. I love the concept of pie and mash; I love the history and the timeless interior design of the pie houses. I tend to find the quality of the product slightly lacking, however. Goddards pie and mash house, which opened in 1890, actually exceeded my expectations in terms of the quality of its offerings. The pie and mash and liquor (essentially a parsley sauce), topped off with some of Goddards’ own chilli vinegar, went down fairly well. Even the stewed eels were a great improvement on my previous tastings. Not the best pie I’ve ever had, or the best mashed potato, perhaps, but a reasonably good tourist experience, for sure.
Pie and mash is a traditional working class food, and some born and bred Londoners can feel fairly passionate about it for that reason. At the table opposite us, there were some authentic London football fans, eating pie and mash and swearing loudly. My tourist friends were highly impressed. This is what they had come to London to see. The football fans were mostly likely city traders by day, but hey, that’s chow business. – CEDAR LEWISOHN