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Where Did The Tradition Of Pie And Mash Originate?

As a vast and cosmopolitan metropolis, London is a place where you can try all kinds of cuisine from all over the world. But for many visitors, no trip is complete without sampling our traditional pie and mash.

This may prompt a question: Where and when did this dish, along with other traditional Cockney food like jellied eels, come from? Was it something that was sourced locally, was it introduced by sailors from overseas coming to London’s docks, or could it be something brought from elsewhere in the UK that became popular in the capital, like Cheshire Cheese?

Happily, we can tell you this is as authentic as London food gets. It was first eaten in the East End of London in the 18th century and was available from stalls, although the pie and mash cafes you can still sometimes see today became a popular feature of the fast-growing city in Victorian times.

The popularity of the dish was easy to account for. The ingredients were readily available, perfectly nutritious and also affordable for the working class in the docks and factories of the East End.

By this time, of course, east London was rapidly urbanising, as the capital underwent a massive expansion during the 19th century with its population expanding from around a million to more than six million.

This meant that as time went on there wouldn’t have been local fields in which to grow potatoes or the grains from which flour to make pastry could be obtained. However, a growing capital was very busy bringing in lots of food via its docks, along canals, and, later on, by rail, providing lots of food options.

Eels were initially plentiful in the Thames, but as the city grew and the river became more polluted, this element increasingly came from elsewhere, usually the Netherlands.

Nowadays people think of jellied eels as a dish in its own right, separate from pie and mash, but originally the slinky fish was the prime meat ingredient for the pies. However, as time went on, a plentiful supply of minced beef and onion was on hand for Londoners to use. What London couldn’t grow or catch, it could easily access by other means.

Even so, the fact that eels were the chief pie ingredient has left a legacy in names like Eel Pie Island, London’s only inhabited island - although this is a long way from the docks of the East End, being located in Twickenham and more famous for its gigs by the likes of the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd in the 60s and 70s than crusty Cockney cuisine.

Moreover, while the eels no longer provide the meat, they are still a key ingredient, as the parsley sauce is mixed with an eel gravy to provide a unique condiment flavour.

Unlike other traditional British dishes such as black pudding, there is no claim made by the French, Irish or anyone else to be the place of origin for pie and mash. This is as authentically Cockney as the sound of Bow Bells, Pearly Queens and rhyming slang.

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