Graze your way through history

By Chris McBeath

Move over mushy peas and spam from a can, today’s English cuisine is nothing short of revolutionary. With celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver on the international circuit, and national cooking treasures such as Mary Perry and Delia Smith, it’s clear that the country’s obsession with the weather has been usurped by its passion for food. And nowhere is this better experienced than on a London eating tour.

With the city’s embedded history and dynamic multi-cultural heritage, grazing one’s way through London’s back streets and markets is so much more than a culinary safari.

Appetizing Choices

First up is to travel-the-world of flavours around Soho, stopping for hand-crafted brews and cocktails along the way. Tip: This tour’s a perfect adjunct to shopping along Regent Street but not one that’ll finish in time for a West End show. There’s also a terrific option around Southwark and Borough Market where the aforementioned Jamie and co. pick up produce. Tip: This tour is a perfect pairing with a visit to The Shard, Tower Bridge or the Tower of London.

Then there are tours of London’s East End where the former rough and tumble, down-trodden cockney neighborhoods of Whitechapel, Bethnal Green and Shoreditch have reinvented themselves. Today, street art is plentiful and uber hip. History oozes from the streetscapes (this was Jack the Ripper territory), and the food is fantastic.

East End Edibles

You’ll probably start your food-trek at St. John Restaurant with what The Guardian newspaper voted as the Best Breakfast in the World: the bacon sarnie, aka sandwich. St. John’s raison d’etre is nose-to-tail eating so menu choices include dishes such as whole braised duck or trotters with rarebit mashed potatoes. Then it’s on to sit on an old church pew in The English Restaurant, a restored 17th century mansion in the heart of Spitalfields. It’s hard to believe that the scrumptious bread and butter pudding, made with brioche topped with real custard, actually dates to the 13th century when the poorer classes made it using stale bread, leftovers, and as many currants as the makers could afford. You’ll barely have licked the spoon clean and you’ll be ambling off the calories to load up on more at Poppies. The 50’s style diner – serving classic fish and chips in newspaper, is consistently ranked the top chippy in London, although Fish Market in Borough Market is arguably its equal. Take that tour and vote for yourself! Tip: Poppies is a 15-minute walk from Columbia Road Flower Market, a little known Sunday morning treat for the senses.

Pub Pause

Every tour includes a stop-off for a local ale or cider. The Pride of Spitalfields is a little gem and exudes the same authenticity as the rest of its neighborhood. 0nce a Roman burial grounds, Spitalfields of yesteryear has also been the site of the largest medieval hospital in England, its ‘fields’ were the artillery playgrounds of King Henry VIII (Gun Street tells the tale), and covering such a large area, it was a useful reference point for the Luftwaffe during the London Blitz.

On the tour, you’ll walk through the early Jewish quarter and past its landmark old Soup Kitchen. The poorest of poor would bring their own bowls for a ladle of stew and a piece of bread. Children got more so were often “borrowed” to secure an extra portion. Tip: Hope that Beigel Bake is on your tour; expect melt-in-your-mouth salt beef bagels and long, shuffling line-ups 24×7.

Look, too, for the Georgian and Dickensian buildings. In the 1700s they housed Hugeonot silk-weavers and the most concentrated French speaking settlement in England. The Irish came in the 1800s to escape the potato famine, and in the Victorian era, several houses were charitable homes for the destitute. One of the most intriguing is at Wilkes & Princelet streets: the building has been preserved in its original condition for use by the film industry for many a period drama.

Back to Food

The tasting finale of every East End tour is Banglatown, and more specifically Brick Lane and the heart of the East Asian community. With upwards of sixty curry houses along ‘the curry mile’, spicy is the real-meal-deal worthy of a return visit. Did you know? Chicken Tikka Massala, Britain’s #1 Indian food, was invented in Scotland!

Whether a Londoner or visitor, London Eating Tours do more that whet your appetite. They’re a cultural scramble of history and flavours, and a 6-8 course experience for less than a price of a slap up dinner!

Photos (in the order they appear):

  • East End Foodie Couple
  • London Graffiti
  • Best Breakfast in the World – Bacon Sarnie (aka sandwich)
  • Bread and Butter Pudding
  • Local Brews – Pride of Spital Fields
  • Poppies Fish and Chips
  • Brick Lane Curry