London is a large multicultural city with a long and varied history. Likewise its food has gone through many changes over the centuries. Some of the stories connected with these are colourful, some food combinations repulsive.
For instance during the great Fire of London, in 1666, it is said that Samuel Pepys, the famous diarist, buried two of his most precious belongings in a pit in his garden. They were his cheese and his wine.
Then there are other dishes, some of them popular street food available from stalls and popular for many decades, shellfish such as cockles, mussels and whelks, and jellied eels. Billingsgate is the largest fish market in Britain trading every sort of local fish and shellfish.
Once eels were caught in the Thames. Locals enjoyed them in eel pies covered with puff pastry or cooked in a stock then left to cool, allowing a jelly to form. Jellied eels are still a favourite in the East End of London.
In the 19th century, oysters were the cheapest food for the poor and they ate them picked from the pilings of wharves in the Thames. As early as the 15th century, they were a healthy ‘found’ food for the poor.
At one time London streets were busy with pie, muffin and crumpet sellers and others roasting chestnuts in season or potatoes. Long ago, for those who wanted to sit indoors to dine, London had ‘eating houses’ which over the centuries morphed into the restaurants we know today.
Today, London has willingly adopted a smart new restaurant scene, featuring celebrity TV chefs such as Jamie Oliver, Heston Blumenthal, Rick Stein and the illustrious Gordon Ramsay. Former bad-boy Marco Pierre White did much to raise the awareness of locals to finer fare too, and of course the French-born chef Michel Roux and his son have long been Michelin-star gatherers.
In fact London currently has 52 Michelin-starred restaurants. But the best eating need not be hugely expensive.
Good food can be found at pubs, some of which have coined the rather unfortunate name of ‘gastro-pubs’. Here you can find everything from familiar dishes such an upmarket version of ‘bangers ‘(sausages) and mash (mashed potato) as well as some quite adventurous dishes.
Then there’s ethnic food. It has been said that Britain’s favourite dish is butter chicken, which recently seems to have given way to chicken tikka masala. Either way, it’s Indian. London’s large Pakistani population has influenced this, and ‘going out for an Indian’ (while it can sound subversive) is simply Brit-speak for eating at the nearest Indian restaurant.
Italian is also a popular cuisine in London and several chains sell good pasta dishes and pizza. Spaghetti House is just one example.
As various ethnic cultures tend to settle in clusters where they can worship, eat and shop with their own race, so it is that as you travel around the suburbs of London, it is almost like a world tour as you pass from one community to another.
Takeaway is popular too in many parts. Fish and chips is the UK’s longest standing popular takeaway, but these days the ‘frying tonight’ signs are not so common. Most places fry every night, and most don’t wrap in yesterday’s newspaper either. If lemon is not provided look for a bottle of vinegar to douse the chips. Of course there are the many chains of fast food outlets found the world over.
Street food still exists. In winter look (or sniff) for roasting chestnuts potatoes, and watch out for food stalls at markets selling Indian, Thai, Italian, Caribbean and other ethnic foods. Whitecross Street off Old St has lots of interesting stalls and vans selling food as does Brick Lane Market and Portobello Road in Notting Hill, but there are many others scattered around London.
England is a great tea-drinking nation and many of the population still believe that a ‘cuppa’ will cure everything from heartbreak to a headache. However coffee is now making inroads into the UK psyche, becoming a popular drink. Unfortunately most of it is from chain cafes, and is served too hot, in too large quantities, and not well enough made.
London has always done large, covered food markets well and Covent Garden is noted for its fruit and vegetables. Major supermarkets are Sainsbury’s and Tesco. Gourmet food halls include Fortnum & Mason, Harrods, and Selfridge’s.
The major influences on London’s food today have come from a shrinking economy, migration, and overseas trends. Even so, the tradition of strawberries and cream being served to the crowd at Wimbledon (the annual tennis tournament) signalling the beginning of summer, seems to be a permanent item on this city’s menu.
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