A chat with the owners of London’s oldest pie and mash shop
‘I’ve never actually tried jellied eels, they’re just not my bag’
London is one of the world’s culinary capitals, with over 17,000 restaurants in the city – many with long, prestigious histories.
And none are more iconic than East End pie and mash shops, which are synonymous with cockney culture. Most “shops” have a simple menu: a pie (normally beef) served with mash and a parsley liquor as well as jellied eels – eels boiled in a stock that has been cooled and set.
I decided to talk to one of the owners of London’s oldest pie and mash shop. Graham Manze has been in the Pie & Mash business all his life – his grandfather Michael emigrated to London from Italy in the late 19th century and went into the business in 1902.
Graham now runs the business, which consists of three shops, with his two brothers.
The shop I meet Graham in is on Peckham High Street – it isn’t the oldest, that being the one in Tower Bridge – but was established in 1926.
Although Peckham has changed a lot since then, the store has retained a strong Victorian feel: the walls are all tiled and I sit on a wooden bench as I talk to Graham, awaiting my own portion of jellied eels.
Graham runs the business with his two brothers
I asked Graham how eels became a part of Londoners’ diets: “Eels were often served in pies because they were cheap, as well as being the only fish that could survive the Thames’ water.
“They used to be cooked in a big pot and, in the olden days, the floors used to be covered in sawdust because people would eat the eels, chew the meat off and spit the bones on the floor. All you had to do then was sweep the sawdust out at the end of the day.
“We don’t do that anymore though” Graham adds.
I’m presented with a bowl of cold jellied eels – Graham tells me that most people eat it with pepper and chilli vinegar. I take a bite full of trepidation, and am pleasantly surprised by how nice it actually is.
It doesn’t have a strong fishy taste and you can really taste the chilli, which surprisingly works well with the rubbery texture of the eel.
“I like eels but I’ve never actually tried them jellied,” Graham surprisingly admits: “It’s just not my bag”.
I asked him if people are often grossed out by them: “We actually get a lot of people wanting to try it. Once they’ve eaten them, they usually say they enjoyed them.”
I’m also offered a beef pie, served with mash potato and a parsley liquor – called so because historically it was made out of the cooking juices from the eels. I’d heard that many pie and mash shops had a closely-guarded secret recipe so I decided to ply Graham.
He says: “Most shops basically follow the same recipe but with slight variations. Our recipe is still the same as it was in 1892 – the only difference now is that the quality is probably better than back then.
“It’s not as popular as it was because there’s so much more choice now but it’s still very popular. Our customers come from right across the board.
“We look out for mothers bringing in their babies and we introduce them to mashed potato and liquor so they get the taste for it, and hopefully they’ll keep coming back when they’re older. We have a lot of regulars as well, some come in once a week or twice a week and even some who come five times a week.”
Graham also say that they get quite a few celebrities at their Tower Bridge shop: “David Beckham and Posh are regulars. We’ve not actually seen him but Posh said in an interview at our Tower Bridge Shop that this was his favourite.”
However, with more and more restaurants and eateries springing up around an increasingly gentrified London, is Graham worried that pie and mash might lose out to competitors?
“There’s much more choice now but pie and mash is still inexpensive. There are chicken shops around here that sell a meal for 99p, but we try not to govern ourselves on price – we could make it cheaper but at the cost of quality.
“All our food is made in the morning with the meat coming from Smithfield Market. The meat for our pies is British beef and our potatoes come from a farm in Cambridge, we control absolutely everything that goes into our food.
“Our food is also healthy – a pie and mash has around 350 calories and is a totally balanced meal.”
Finally, I asked Graham what he thought the the future was for pie and mash.
“We do a lot of takeaways,” he says: “The internet is very good – we don’t advertise really, but people say they found us on Google.
“Our chilli vinegar is very popular, we sell so much of it online and ship it all over the country. We also do merchandise, like T-shirts, mugs and bags. It’s a lot of work though!”
After the interview, I looked round the shop – there was a constant trade with people either eating in or taking away. I had to agree with Graham: the future for cockney pie and mash looks Robin Hood.