My Citizens! As noted in my previous post, I have decreed from on-high that all of TFD Nation needs a break from the barrage of political issues facing the United States and that we all need a bit of levity in our lives right now.
As such, the next several recipes are thematically linked by not only being British in origin, but also by having unusual names, ingredients and histories – all in celebration of today being Guy Fawkes Day in the UK! Since today is indeed the day celebrated by the humble proletariats of the United Kingdom, I thought it would be apropos to start with the favored meal of the UK ‘proles’ for the last few hundred years – eel pie with parsley liquor!
Yes – I said eel pie with parsley liquor! 🙂
A truly odd combination to modern sensibilities, perhaps – but this sustaining meal nourished most of London’s working class for centuries and it is indeed delicious, despite the odd ingredients and name! First of all, the name ‘liquor’ doesn’t have the same original meaning as it does today – the relevance to using the term in this recipe dates back to the earliest years of the 13th century, amply demonstrating the antiquity of this particular recipe!
Specifically – c. 1200, likur “any matter in a liquid state, a liquid or fluid substance,” from Old French licor “fluid, liquid; sap; oil” (12c., Modern French liqueur), from Latin liquorem (nominative liquor) “a liquid, liquor; wine; the sea,” originally “liquidity, fluidity,” from liquere “be fluid, liquid”.
As noted in a fascinating article on NPR:
We were in London, searching for Hidden Kitchen stories, when we came upon an Eel Pie & Mash shop. It was full of old white marble tables, tile walls, pots of stewed and jellied eels, and piles of pies. These shops are now a dying breed, along with the eels they serve. Our search for the source of these vanishing eels led us to southwest London — to Eel Pie Island, a tiny slice of land with a flamboyant history that stretches from Henry the VIII to the Rolling Stones.
“Eel Pie. Think of an apple pie, with eels in it,” says Dan van der Vat, author of the book Eel Pie Island. The pies, when you can find them these days, are round and mounded like apple pies, but they taste meaty and rich. Van der Vat has lived where it all began — on Eel Pie Island — for 30 years. It’s the only inhabited island on the tidal Thames, 18 miles upriver from the center of London.
“The traditional eel [pie] is from the Londoners in the early 16th and 17th century, when the Thames was full of eels, and they were cheap,” says Ruth Phillips, owner of Cockney’s Pie and Mash Shop, one of the few remaining eel pie shops in London.
But the story of how eel pie became a staple of the London diet is legendary — if a bit slippery.
Legend has it that Henry VIII was being rowed up the Thames on the Royal Barge one day, and while passing the island, he was overcome by hunger, says van der Vat. “He said, ‘Stop the barge and bring us a pie! Bring us an eel pie!’ He sent a minion ashore to buy him one from Mistress Mayo’s famous stall, acquired a taste for her pies, and then frequently indulged it.” But, as van der Vat says, “the tale is highly suspicious. The hotel was built by the Mayo family, and Mistress Mayo ran it — but in 1830, not 1530.”
Regardless of exactly how it began, for the next couple of centuries, Eel Pie Island became a retreat, known for its music and food, and for the clean air upriver from the polluted heart of London. Charles Dickens came by paddle steamer to visit the hotel in the 1830s, immortalizing it in his novel Nicholas Nickleby.
Eel, pie and mash houses are living history and very much a London invention. The houses were a Victorian creation, though sellers had their own stalls since the eighteenth century. Eels were very cheap and just swimming about in the River Thames. Oddly, they took off during a time when the heavily-polluted Thames did not have any eels swimming in its waters. The eels did arrive on the Thames though; brought up on barges from Holland. These days they come from Ireland.
Pie and mash is a traditional working-class food, originating in the East End of London. Pie, mash and eel shops have been in London since the 19th century, and are still common in East and South London and in many parts of Kent and Essex.
During the Victorian era, industrial air pollution tended to be worse in the east and southeast of London because of the prevailing westerly wind, with the result that the East End was settled more by the working classes, while the western part of the city was home to higher social classes. This was also the original home of Cockney Slang, the rhyming dialect used by some London Eastenders even today – FYI, Cockney slang for a pie is “Isle of Skye”. 🙂 Here’s a great video of the cast of the British TV show Eastenders getting quizzed on Cockney Slang!
Since 2010, as revealed in a joint study by the Zoological Society of London and the Environment Agency, the number of eels captured in research traps in the River Thames fell from 1,500 in 2005 to 50 in 2010, meaning most eels used in pie and mash shops are now from the Netherlands and Northern Ireland.
While eel consumption continues to go down in the 21st century (in 2000, there was only one stall selling live eels in Billingsgate Market), the number of eel and pie shops has not gone down very much: there were 87 eel and pie shops in Greater London in 1995, compared to around 110 at the end of 1800. Today, virtually all of these shops have sadly stopped serving eel pies in favor of beef pies – but TFD eschews fashion in favor of true flavor!
Before shops became common, trading took place from braziers or carts. It was not until late Victorian times that shops began to appear. The first recorded shop was Henry Blanchard’s at 101 Union Street in Southwark in 1844 which was described as an “Eel Pie House”.
The shops have become part of the local community and heritage of their area, for example, L. Manze in Walthamstow became Grade II listed by English Heritage in 2013 due to its architectural and cultural significance. FYI – TFD’s favorite pie and mash shop is F. Cooke in London – learn more about it and other guardians of culinary tradition here.
Traditionally, pie and mash shops have white tile walls with mirrors, and marble floors, tables and work tops, all of which are easy to clean. They give the shops, hardly ever called restaurants, a late Victorian or Art Deco appearance. Due to the large number of pleasure boat steamer companies offering Sunday trips on the River Thames, many Eastenders used them to explore the more gentrified west of London.
The result was that many also wanted their traditional foods of ale and pie and mash, resulting in the renaming of both a hotel that they frequently visited and the island on which it sat in Twickenham to Eel Pie Island in the early 1900s.
The main dish sold in these shops is pie and mash, served with mashed potato. There should be two types of pastry used in the pie; the bottom or base should be suet pastry and the top can be rough puff or short. It is common for the mashed potato to be spread around one side of the plate and for a type of parsley sauce to be present.
This is commonly called eel liquor sauce or simply liquor (the term liquor does not imply alcohol content in its original meaning, as explained earlier), traditionally made using the water kept from the preparation of the stewed eels. However, many shops no longer use stewed eel water in their parsley liquor. The sauce traditionally has a green color, from the parsley.
There are three elements to the classic meal: pie, mash and eel liquor. The liquor is the truly special part. You must add liberal amounts of salt, vinegar and pepper or chili on there too when you serve it. Think that all this eel sounds disgusting? Think again! If you have ever enjoyed unagi sushi or grilled unagi fillets at a Japanese restaurant, you’ve had eel! When cooked, the meat is white, flaky and delicate and doesn’t taste of fish at all – it is in fact quite meaty!
I believe I speak for virtually all of TFD Nation when I exclaim that we are not prepared to butcher live eels – that is absolutely a job for a skilled fishmonger! However, there is a shortcut I am endorsing for this recipe because A: it is a LOT easier to obtain than live eels and B: it’s a lot less gross than live eels.
Simply pop down to your favorite Japanese restaurant and ask to purchase some pre-cooked eel, whether by ordering a bunch of eel sushi or grilled eel kabayaki. The Japanese have a tremendous skill in cooking eel, and their use of an unctuous bbq-style sauce on it doesn’t hurt either!
So, we’ve addressed the eel – now what about that oddly-named parsley liquor? As noted above, traditionally it was based on eel broth made from cooking the live eels – but again, that isn’t an option for most of us today.
Instead, I’ve come up with the genius idea of using oyster liquor instead – and yes, that’s another example of using the word ‘liquor’ in its original context! It is a perfect substitute for the eel broth! I’ve also tweaked the classic parsley liquor recipe with a bit of fresh basil and roasted garlic as well – feel free to omit them for a more classic flavor profile.
Now – TFD is a true believer in culinary historic accuracy, so the basis for my eel pie recipe derives from one published in the late 19th century and which uses a strangely-named condiment modern cooks aren’t familiar with. It’s called Harvey’s Sauce and was a common condiment in that time – and it is surprisingly easy to make!
It is totally delicious, with a strong umami flavor profile from its combination of soy sauce, mushroom ketchup and a lot of garlic.
You want this ruthlessly authentic recipe in your lives, Citizens – but you can, if you must, make substitutions. For example, substitute Worcestershire sauce and a lot of garlic instead of the Harvey’s Sauce if you so prefer.
The original Harvey’s Sauce recipe called for a natural red food dye called cochineal – it is made from a source you probably would prefer not to know more about – I recommend instead the far-easier to obtain red food gel coloring found here. You can also – again, if you must – not even use eel in the recipe. I find monkfish works well as an alternative – and even chicken, but I’d personally only use monkfish.
Here is the original recipe from 1868 upon which I based my own eel pie version, as discovered on thecooksguide.com:
Being a staunch guardian of culinary history, I also call for the only TRUE way of making eel pies – with two different crusts, a suet-based bottom crust and a puff pastry top crust (I use frozen puff pastry that has been defrosted to save time).
Citizens, whilst this dish may have a funny name to a modern American ear, be assured that it is anything but funny on the palate – it is herbaceous, garlic-laden, sticks to the ribs and the parsley liquor is especially delicious!
With my shortcuts, it is at last possible to resurrect a recipe that deserves to be far better known in the U.S. and perhaps kickstart a renaissance in its home country of the UK! Yes, the recipe has a number of steps – but they are all quite easy, so don’t be discouraged! This would be a delicious meal to enjoy before another recipe of the common man – the Welsh tea cake with fruit known as Bara Brith!
Stay tuned for the second installment of our unusually-named British recipe theme, Citizens! The next one is a doozy: the evocatively-named ‘Spotted Dick’‘! 😉
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