Monday, 27 January 2014

The Secret History of Street Food Tour

In the name of diversity (and a healthy dose of self interest) I was able to take another first for the blog here: a food tour.

My guide Emma from Coutours met me beside the West Cornwall Pasty Company Stand, outside of Liverpool Street Station. It was an easy to find, food related meeting point for this private tour which would take me around the East End and introduce me to some of the foods and stories behind the varied culinary cultures of this part of London. 

We soon came to Spitalfields Market and the adjacent Fruit and Wool Exchange. This building is one I must have seen many hundred times yet I don't recall ever noticing its title up on high. I was told about its former purpose and how it had been turned into offices more recently. We talked about the market and its former dysfunctional days with some affection; produce and people spilling chaotically out onto the streets blocking the roads. The tour's focus was upon history, on what had been there, so we went further back in time and I heard about its Victorian period and the class distinctions which meant the middle and upper classes did not shop for food but rather sent their staff. This focus upon history is of course a very typical one of guided tours which often aim to bring to the surface the invisible or hidden aspects of an area which the visitor might not know or be able to see by themselves. A tour that focuses not on the past but on the present is less common but there are a few locally such as the, the Shoreditch Party Pub Crawl and the Street Art tours. Tours that imagine the future are the least common. These are tours that might be made by a property developer in order to win support from financiers and planning officials. It is these future focussed tours, private tours with glossy CGI brochures, that preceded the transformation of Spitalfields Market, an act of corporate vandalism that has been honoured with awards. My guided Emma expressed mixed feelings about the new Old Spitalfields Market, while something had to be done to arrest the place's freefall during the 80s and 90s, and that something would almost inevitably mean City expansion, it was not as bad as it could have been and enough of the fabric of the market remained for it to still be recognisable as one continuous structure. 

The idea of a food tour immediately set off my salivatory imagination, however the tour took us not only to places where food is served but also to some locations where there was no food to be sampled, such as this site of a former dairy. It was then that the precise nature of the tour became clear to me. While there was food to be had on this tour, as you shall see, the emphasis was far more upon using the history of food as a vehicle to talk about the area's history more generally. Given that food is a very specific expression of a culture and that this area has had many waves of immigration there was plenty to talk about. What's more by approaching this history through the frame of food, there were may original angles on stories that I had heard in other formats on previous tours of this part of London.

An example of local food history is fish and chips, one of the few British signature dishes. Emma explained how the tradition of deep frying fish in batter was introduced into Britain by Portuguese jews. When cooked in this way, the fish preserved well and made it suitable for cooking in advance and then being eaten on the sabbath. The chips, I was told, were popular with Irish immigrants and these were originally the off-cuts of potatoes which were very inexpensive. Inflation being what it is, chips from Poppies could no longer be described as cheap, but they sure were tasty, on a par with Happy Days, which I visited while taking the Queen Mary East End Tour.

This sign 'Your Mum Ate My Meat Porn' was never going to speak to me as I don't eat meat. We passed, in fact, by a great many unexceptional sights such as this and the character of the tour was that we rarely stopped at them but rather they were referred to in passing and the conversation continued as we strolled further through the neighbourhood. This leant the tour a more free flowing atmosphere, it was certainly not a tour of 12 impressive sites that came with tightly rehearsed description of them from the guide, as can happen. Instead observations and details came at a steady pace and every now and again we'd stop so there was time to talk a bit more about what was in front of us, though often as not the conversation continued afterwards as well. This is partly the result of this being a private tour for one but I noticed that Coutours deliberately keeps the tour groups small in number so something of this flavour of personalised and conversational walking is retained. I felt I was being treated like an adult; big tour groups can often have the resonance of being on a school trip.

We then entered the food markets and took a look around at the many stalls from all over the world. To my surprise there were quite a number of Ethiopian vegetarian stalls, they seem to be the latest thing. I settled in front of this Japanese stall and was set off wondering about the etymology of tempura, whether it was also of Portuguese origin or if it was developed quite independently. Answers welcome.

I found myself starting to look at the place as a United Nations of food as the stalls all had their little flags and logos clearly showing where the dishes came from. However, with this international history of fish and chips in mind, I should not have been surprised to to see that the people working at the stalls did not necessarily reflect the flags they were flying. This Japanese stall was run by an Indian man, for instance.

Then we came to our old friends the Dutch who, I was told, introduced some technical innovations in British gardening such as the use of fertilisers, which had a revolutionising effect on the produce and thus dinner table. Nowadays, of course the country is more famous for its tomatoes without flavour and the stem cell burger launched here in London last year, an artificial burger made from growing stem cells in a laboratory.

We stopped in Nude Espresso to warm up, drink coffee and see a local eatery from the inside. Since this was a solo tour I was able to ask questions not only about today's theme of food but also about my preoccupation of tours. Emma was most forthcoming and told me how she became interested in giving tours after having taken one herself in Jordan that came perilously close to falling apart in the desert. I thought this was a rather beautiful and personal beginning which she built upon through a great deal of hard work: giving as many as 2000 tours in a year. That must surely be a truly immersive sink or swim training on the job. Her perseverance has paid off and she has developed a business out of it and created a number of tours angled around different themes and set in various parts of London. She told me she continually develops new tours and is working on a 'scent' tour of Central London right now. We talked a bit more around the process of constructing tours and with our coffee cups drained stepped back out into the fresh air.

Almost inevitably we made our way to the two bagel bakeries, spelled beigel as they are of Polish origin, at the top of Brick Lane. They had sizeable queues snaking out of them since, it being a market day, they were doing storming business. That said, they seem to have a healthy flow of customers at all times of the day and night. Thinking back to what I was told earlier in the tour about shopping historically being for the lower classes I could not help but notice how it has grown in popularity and become a  major form of entertainment for people of all positions within society. While Brick Lane is not Portobello Road, it is a popular street market that is as much about selling the idea of itself as a market as it is about selling any particular goods. People come here to hang out and will not necessarily leave with purchases. The one thing they do buy however is food, as that has become part of the identity of the market, and an integral part of the market experience. This transformation from being a market of good to a market of lifestyle must be one of the main reasons behind the huge growth of street food on Sundays.

Because it was a Sunday many of the cafes and restaurants outside of the Brick Lane were closed and I was told that the East End food tour is more commonly held on a Saturday, when places like Kelly's is open. Having already tried jellied eels and mash (with liquor) before I did not feel I missed out on too much this time round, if anything it was something of a relief not to have to repeat that particular East End delicacy. This got us going on, if and how pie and mash shops could or should be rejigged, as they are something of a dying breed.

Our final stop on the tour was Pellicci's in Bethnal Green, famous for having once been the Krays' local cafe. Once again then, the twins who lived round the corner on Vallance Road made their way into a tour of the East End. I heard about a Kray tour from the point of view of someone who used to drink in an East End pub that would be periodically invaded by a tour group who'd be told, "The Krays shot a guy in that corner" and with that the group would shuffle out. Fortunately for Pellicci's the place was not the scene of a murder or stabbing, as far as I am aware, but rather the scene of many a lunch that was a result of Italian cooking meeting British tastes. 


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