Mark Wincott on an East End institution: Pie & Mash

“Eels are an aphrodisiac.” These words stayed with me from the age of seven. I never knew what aphrodisiac meant; it wasn’t a transformer – I checked.

I did know that an eel was a slippery, slimy looking fish that old people eat without throwing up. As years went by I found out what aphrodisiac meant, and eels became top of my list. At 18 I tried this beneficial, unique, chewy fish, which doesn’t taste like fish – or chicken. I tried to look comfortable eating it in front of my peers. I couldn’t tell them I’d never tried it before because eels in a pie and mash shop is an East End institution, like cockney rhyming slang, Ray Winstone and learning about the Blitz. I was under pressure.

Since the 1800’s, street Vendors have caught and prepared eels from the river Thames and prepared them for a warm, wholesome bit of scran, food for poorer classes of yesteryear. In 1850 Michele Manze and Fred Cooke opened shops respectively, selling pies filled with offal, served with mash and covered in liquor: boiled eel water and parsley sauce or “that green stuff” if you will. It’s not gravy – that’s a swear word – it’s liquor.

There’s a protocol to eating this stuff. My uncle stopped speaking to his mate for an entire month as he asked for a knife to eat his pie. Remember – it’s a spoon and fork, it’s cockney etiquette. A silent rule, as with the gravy comment, although in saying that, a few old school shops have gravy for the more gentrified of you, and the eels are no longer from the Thames, they’ve all emigrated and are now brought over from Ireland.

My local, the noted Eel and Pie House in Leytonstone, has served families since the 1920s when their Dutch ancestors opened in Bow Road and later bringing this flavour here in 1977. The shops décor of white tiled walls, gilded floor, red painted hard wooden benches and heavy tables bolted to the ground are an essential touch of a sadly declining entity. Memories are built in these premises – I remember my uncle Albert powering through four pies, triple mash and a portion of eels – all before pub opening time. You ask anyone what their favourite pie and mash shop is, and you will find out where they are from.

It’s a memory museum of family times the moment the spoon crunches the top of the pie, the meat oozes out and mixes well with the liquor. The food doesn’t last long, it’s served quick and hot and finished by the time the thinking begins to moan about something.

I remember a controversy when mash no longer was spread on plates but scooped; oh, the torture of change. My mum remembers her local, Lediard’s Pie and Mash on West Ham Lane, which had sawdust sprinkled over the floor so the old boys could spit out eel bones. It’s now a chicken takeaway.

Every time you click your finger, a pie and mash shop closes. Sad times.

For a warm, home-cooked hot treat you cannot go wrong with Leytonstone’s Eel and Pie House, standing the test of time for mates who gather in their masses. A shop just yards away from where Alfred Hitchcock was born, Jonathon Ross lived over the road, David Beckham around the corner, Derek Jacobi and Fanny Craddock up the street, and all, including my pals, never realised eels are an aphrodisiac.

Eel and Pie House:  481a High Rd Leytonstone, E11 4JU

F Cooke:  9 Broadway Market, E8 4PH and 150 Hoxton St, N1 6SH
Manze’s:  6 High St, Walthamstow, E17 7LD and 4 Chapel Market, N1 9ER
Maureen’s Pie & Mash:  6 Market Square, Poplar, E14 6AH
G Kelly’s:  526 Roman Rd, E3 5ES
S & R Kelly & Sons:284 Bethnal Green Rd, E2 0AG
Robin’s:  14 High Street, Wanstead, E11 2AJ and 50 Station Road, Chingford, E4 7BE

BJ’s Pie & Mash:  330 Barking Rd, E13 8HL
EastEnders:  171 E India Dock Rd, Poplar, E14 0EA
Traditional East End Pie & Mash:  538 Barking Rd, E13 8QE/span>

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