House was the name of the tavern’s grandest as punting groups would cruise along the shoreline and gather for fun picnics by the banks of the river. Inside, the inn chefs would debone, skin, and cut batches of Thames eels into chunks of three inches before stewing them for pastry and pie oven.
In the following years, the islet would be changed to Eel Pie Island, and the eel-laden pastry’s transformation from a healthy novelty to an inexpensive, widely available food item was complete. Today, London’s first fast food remains a source of inspiration for travelers to go out and find it, even after many centuries.
When I saw Rick Poole on a softly lit lunchtime in springtime, he pondered the same story and how, around the beginning of the 20th Century, the humble eel would come to establish his family’s legacy. “We used to have sawdust on the floor of our shops to soak up the juice from the discarded eel bones,” he told me. “It was quite a horrible thing. Awful, really. And we had the sawdust right up until the late 1970s.”
Pies with jellied and liquor Eels can still be found in London’s pie and eel restaurants (Credit Sergio Amiti/Getty Images)
Poole is the director of M. Manze London’s oldest pie and eel restaurant, and some claim to be the oldest in the world and the great-grandson of the Manze’s original owner, Michele Manze. The sign in front of the cafe states, “Manzes will change your life!” The frill-free establishment has been catering to patrons since. (London’s first eel-friendly restaurant was established in 1892 by Robert Cooke, who then transferred the business to his son-in-law Michele Manze. Michele Manze.)
In the 1930s, 14 pie and eel shops operated under M. Manze. M. Manze name across London. But today, only three are left with the traditional fronted structure with an awning of dark green and Union Jack flags at 87 Tower Bridge Road, the oldest survivor. According to frequent customers, it’s London’s original takeaway restaurant for fast food.
Going into M. Manze’s first time is like walking into London from a different time. Poole employs the phrase “intimidating”. The tables are communal, with marble tops and benches made of dark wood and distinct white and green wall tiles. A counter is separated by trays of self-serve cutlery and bottles of chili vinegar on one end and cash registers on the opposite. From mid-morning till 18:00, and then later on weekends, staff serve orders for stewed eels jelly eels (set in a dense aspic jam made from bones of eels), as well as a most popular of the moment minced beef meat pies, served with Mash and liquor. The original gravy was eel, but the “liquor” is now a soup-thin, seaweed-green sauce.
The times and the tastes of people have changed, as well as preferences. In the 70s, fish were the primary source of income for market stalls and plain Cockney cafes across East and South London. However, this classic dish is slowly dying.
We’re still catering to those devoted to the traditional, but London has become gentrified, and people are increasingly afraid to try eels.
Eel pies have ceased manufacturing or selling, and sales of stewed and jellied eels are declining dramatically. M. Manze used to process up to 60-80 lbs of eel each week and sold 700 containers or parts per weekend. However, the trends have changed, and the company is now processing and selling just 1/3 of the amount it once did, and the eel is taken directly from the water that is freshwater Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland.
“We’re still catering for hardcore Londoners who love the tradition, but London has gentrified and people are increasingly squeamish – they’re wary of trying eel,” said Poole.
The Londoners always consumed the ray-finned squid in some form or shape at least once a a time. In Victorian times, the catadromous, snake-like fish was sold as a hot dog, served from tiny pushcarts loaded with portable ovenable. Eels were among a few species that survived in the highly polluted Thames and could be a cost-effective food item that was filling and a protein-rich substitute for meat. In the late 19th Century, close to 500 sellers of eels would be seen in London’s Billingsgate Market, today’s largest UK fishing market inland. In 1839, the novelist Charles Dickens took the young Miss Morleena Kenwigs along the Thames to enjoy a picnic in the story of Nicholas Nickleby. Her destination? Eel Pie Island, of course.
A staple food for London Eels has fallen out of favor in the last few decades. (Credit Mike MacEacheran)
Even before this, the eel was always vital in the urban setting. It was the primary ingredient in the 16 recipes in The Master cook, written by Robert May. The book was published in 1660 and was England’s most famous cookery cookbook ever. In the 11th through 14th Centuries, the eels powered London’s economy in the medieval period. Allowing eels to be used as a tax or rent payment was commonplace. Over 540,000 eels were used as rent throughout England each year during the 11th Century in the 11th Century alone.
“Eels were a currency for some 500 years and appear repeatedly in the Domesday Book [Britain’s earliest public record], which was originally published back in 1086,” said an expert on eels, Philippa Nicholls. “They’ve long played an important role in English life in more ways than people realise.”
At present, Nicholls is a Community Eel Officer at Thames 21, the charity that works with local communities to improve London’s rivers for wildlife and people. Although the European eel used to be expected throughout the Thames River Basin, she claims it’s almost unnoticeable in the present day because it is at risk of being wiped out.
“European eels once thrived in London’s rivers, but the number of young joining the adult populations has dropped dramatically since the 1980s,” Nicholls stated. “Data suggests the numbers arriving each year has decreased by more than 90% compared to the 1960-1979 average.”