I skipped breakfast in anticipation of what was to come later in the day.
Finding my way to the Old Spitalfields Market in London’s East End was easy on the Tube, London’s underground train system. The East End, as I would find out, was once one of the poorest, dirtiest parts of London – up until the last few decades. That oft-cited buzzword ‘gentrification’ has been out in force in these parts – what would have been dingy old warehouses and council flats are now hip cafes, designer stores, and home to some of London’s elite.
Along with the layers of history in the physical landscape, there are layers of history in the area’s food culture. With my empty stomach growling with anticipation, I was excited to join a food tour of London’s East End with Eating London Tours. Those who know me know that I trying love local food – and it was my second food tour in a month, after our one in Ho Chi Minh City!
The group gathered in the middle of Old Spitalfields Market – not so old any more with its plethora of food trucks and fancy makeup stores. Our guide Emily was a complete character – she told funny anecdotes and joked along, but she really knew her stuff when it came to the food and the history of the area. After all, she said she had lived down the road for about 5 years so she was pretty much a local!
The first stop for our group of ten hungry travellers was a restaurant called St John Bread & Wine, owned by chef Fergus Henderson who has a nose to tail approach to eating – literally. Fortunately we weren’t offered pig’s trotter or bone marrow that early in the morning, but what we did have was the best bacon sandwich in London, as voted by The Guardian.
And holy heck it was good. Salty, rich, meaty bacon with white bread that had been slightly grilled, a slathering of salty butter, and an in-house ketchup made using apples to enhance the flavour.
I nearly died right there. Little did I know what was to come for the rest of the tour!
About 5 minutes walk away on the other side of Old Spitalfields Market was our second stop – aptly named ‘The English Restaurant’. This building had so much history, originally being inhabited in the 1600s right up to today where it has been a traditional English restaurant for the past 25 years.
So what a great place to try bread and butter pudding, a famous English dessert. And totally appropriate for 10.30 in the morning!
The pudding is made with brioche, dried fruit like sultanas and currants, custard, and is flambeed on top. And of course it was served with custard. Oh man, how delicious! My mouth is watering just remembering the taste.
Next we went for a walk around some of the surrounding area and Emily told us all about the history of this part of East London. Old Spitalfields Market had originated as a hospital (hence Spital – the shortened version of hospital) and had later become London’s first wholesale produce market, which operated until fairly recently. There were streets named Artillery Lane and Gun Street that remain from the days where King Henry VIII would use this area as his personal gun range.
Other historical aspects included the Jewish soup kitchen, in use for almost a hundred years until the 1990s. A large building with a sign stating ‘Women’ above one of the doors was a night refuge where, for just a few pence, women and children could sleep and be fed rather than living on the streets.
By that time we had digested our pud, so onto the next eat. The House of Androuet, run by a couple of French brothers, is famous for being the cheese house that supplies the British Royal Family, and fortunately they have a store in the Old Spitalfields Market!
I love cheese, but usually avoid blue cheese as it’s a bit too intense for me. But of course, blue cheese (stilton) was one of the ones that we had to try at Androuet, along with cheddar – an English favourite. Man it was good cheese – and even the Stilton was amazing!
Next stop was at one of England’s favourite takeout cuisines – fish and chips. Although chicken Tikka Masala might have taken over as the nation’s most popular dish, the old tried and true fish and chips aren’t far behind. We visited a place called Poppies, which has been in business for over 50 years. The inside of the small restaurant was filled with retro memorabilia like a jukebox, records, photos of music stars from a bygone era. It felt like stepping back in time!
And the fish and chips were fantastic, of course. They buy fish from one particular family farm in Scotland that comes fresh every day, and use peanut oil to fry their food in, which apparently is much better than normal vegetable oil. Whatever, it was delicious.
We couldn’t do a food tour in Britain without stopping at one of the nation’s favourite places – the pub. The particular pub we visited (Pride of Spitalfields) had a famous pub cat called Lenny (he’s been in all the big newspapers apparently!). It was a traditional pub with sticky carpet and lace curtains drawn over the windows- one of those places that doesn’t change in decades. We tried an ale from local Truman’s brewery, and also a cider. Both were good!
The southern part of Brick Lane is where the Bangladeshi community came when they settled in London. As such, there is a multitude (and I mean heaps) of curry houses along Brick Lane. I’m unsure how they all survive but I guess everyone must have their favourite! We tried three types of curry – vegetable, lamb and chicken at a place called Aladin, and they were scrummy – especially the lamb one.
In stark contrast, the northern part of Brick Lane has been taken over by hipsters. There are loads of vintage stores, street art, big beards, tattoos and skinny jeans. There’s even a cafe that only sells boxed cereal!
We stopped for a bite at one of the non-hipster eateries along this stretch, a hole in the wall bagelry called Beigel Bake – one of the last remaining Jewish stores in the area and acclaimed as one of the best places to eat in London. We tried their classic bagel with salt beef (a.k.a. corned beef), a slice of pickle, and hot English mustard. Wow! The juicy deliciousness!
Finally, we wandered through Shoreditch past multitudes of hipsters and found our final stop – Pizza East, a very trendy Italian restaurant with a dimly lit rough concrete interior. It was the perfect way to end the tour with a chocolate and salted caramel tart and a cup of tea. The tart was phenomenal – rich and sultry but with enough salt as to not be overwhelmingly sweet. Amazing.
By that stage our stomachs were almost bursting – a good feeling for sure but I don’t know if I could have eaten any more! The Eating London food tour was so great, not just for the delicious bites (which were amazing, of course) but also for the informative stories about what the East End used to be like. It’s a changed place compared with the dark days of the past, but with the pockets of historic places that are being preserved, along with the food culture, elements of its history remain.
Have you done a food tour in a foreign city? Where is your favourite place to try local food? Let us know in the comments section below!