Sunday, October 12, 2008

All's Eel That Ends Eel

We have just a few days left in London before our move back to California, so, when we're not busy packing boxes and waiting on hold with the power company, we've been running around revisiting our favorite spots and trying to do all the things we meant to do over the past year but never got around to.

We'll soon be seeing a lot less of More London

For some unfathomable reason, I decided that it would be wrong if I left London without trying the classic East End specialty: jellied eels. Long-time blog followers will recall that I went to try eels once before just after we arrived in London, but I couldn't bring myself to eat them after seeing an order of them dished up for the man in front of me. Strike one.

Other than massive amounts of alcohol or hypnotism, I figured the only way to get myself to eat jellied eels was by means of the persuasive powers of peer pressure. I arranged to have a farewell lunch with two willing friends at Tubby Isaacs, a food stall on Goulston Street near Aldgate tube station that has been selling eels and other seafood specialties since 1919. Unfortunately, despite seeing it open every other time I had passed by, I made the mistake of scheduling the lunch on Yom Kippur, and Tubby Isaacs was closed for the day. Strike two.

The East End institution M. Manze

But all was not lost in the quest for the jellied eel. Faced with a bit of spare time on Saturday morning, and finding myself in Bermondsey after walking Maggie to her hairdresser, I decided to gather my courage and go back to M. Manze, the site of my first eel failure. Manze's is the oldest eel, pie, and mash shop in London, slopping up dishes of eels since 1892. Apart from the plastic forks and take away containers, I doubt much has changed since they started including the old-timey green lunch lady outfits that they wear behind the counter.

When I confidently ordered my meal of pie and mash with liquor (the green parsley sauce that traditionally accompanies pie and mash) along with an order of jellied eels, the woman behind the counter was apparently unconvinced by my performance.

"First time trying the jellied eels?" she asked.

"It is," I answered truthfully. "Got to be a first time for everything, right?"

"Not for me," she said with undisguised disgust, "I won't touch 'em." A glowing recommendation if I ever heard one, and yet another fine example of British customer service.

Not to be turned away, I went ahead with the order and took my bag of goodies off to a nearby park to inspect the contents. The pie and mash was as I recalled: the mash looked bad and bland but actually tasted quite good; the pie looked delicious and flaky, but was dense and flavorless with a gruesome minced beef interior; the liquor was green, starchy and did absolutely nothing to improve the pie and mash other than adding some much needed color.

Pie and Mash with Liquor

So then we come to the eels. I had been told third-hand that jellied eels are quite delicious once you get past the skin and get the meat off the bone, and this isn't far from the truth. Firstly, it should be noted that the eels are served very cold. The jelly is almost flavorless, apart from a mild fishiness that it picks up from the eels, and serves no function that I could discern other than to make it look totally unappetizing.

Jellied eels, yum-yum

The eel comes looking vaguely like a sliced banana with the peel left on. The skin is rubbery and grey-blue, and running down the center of the meat is the spine of the eel with small bones radiating off this. The trick is to get the meat into your mouth somehow without the skin and bones, which is no easy feat. I stabbed uselessly at the eel bits for a while with a plastic fork and knife and only managed to chip a few flakes of meat off into the gelatinous surroundings. On my second piece, I decided to throw caution to the wind, so I grabbed a piece with my fingers and popped it in my mouth. This worked a lot better, but you get a fishy gelatin-covered hand and a mouth full of skin and bones that you have to spit out.

Picking away at the eels

Once you do manage to get the meat off the eel, it is, despite my low expectations, not that bad. It reminded me of a canned sardine or kipper, but quite mild. Lightly fishy, salty, a bit smokey, but there was nothing unique about the flavor, and certainly nothing to make it worth the effort. As a famine food, I can kind of understand, but I can't understand why it still exits today when there are so many tastier ways to prepare eel.

The full East End spread: pie, mash, liquor, and jellied eels

After a few pieces of eel and some jelly, I decided that I had tried enough for the rest of my life and set off to find something to wash the eel flavor from my mouth. This being my last Saturday in London, I had to make one last visit to Borough Market, the high temple of London food and the perfect spot to find something far tastier than a jellied eel.

A farewell tour

The Brindisa chorizo sandwich stand at Borough Market

My final chorizo sandwich

I made sure to hit all of my favorites: a chorizo sandwich at Brindisa, the awesome little £1 creme caramels at Real France, and a coffee from Monmouth. I waved a sad farewell to Mrs. Bourne's Cheshire Cheese, the yummy raclette and cheese sandwich stand, the guy at the produce stand who was the first person to actually call me "guvna", the meaty wonderland of The Ginger Pig, and the beautiful gothic Southwark Cathedral.

Creme caramel from Real France: best way to spend £1 ever

Southwark Cathedral

The eel flavor a distant memory, and my belly full of much better food, I went back home to continue avoiding packing and cleaning. I'm definitely happy to have tried pie, mash, and jellied eels just for the London credentials and to say proudly that I've eaten them and kept them down, but I can't say that I highly recommend them to others. British food has happily moved beyond the stereotype of being bland, fatty, and questionably edible when sober, so it remains to be seen whether future generations will embrace the jellied eel (metaphorically I hope).


American in London said...

Crackerjack reporting, Andy. I didn't know *that's* what jellied eel looked like, and I appreciate that you took one for the team on this one: Now I feel as if I know what the experience is like without having to eat it myself.

You're right that there must be many tastier ways to eat eel than in jellied form. Grilled unagi, for starters.

I'm so sad you and Maggie are leaving London. But I'm looking forward to your adventures back in the Bay Area. : )

treehavn said...

The jelly...and serves no function that I could discern other than to make it look totally unappetizing.

Horribly, the jelly is a by-product of cooking the eels - usually they don't add it for aesthetic purposes (although sometimes they do). Still, you're a brave man, I can't say I've ever been tempted.

grumblemouse said...

I have to say that I'm still glad that Tubby's was closed and we got to eat the Tayyab lamb chops.

However in honour of your brave quest I too will seek out and eat some Jellied Eels.

Andy M. said...

If you do try some eels, I want photos. Unfortunately I was by myself and couldn't capture the eel-tasting moment.

Needless to say, I'd take a Tayyab's lamb chop any day over a dish of eels.

mc said...

Hi, just discovered your blog yesterday - I guess a bit too late. I'm an Oakland native now living in East London. Your Graham Norton post cracked me up, and the banana one amused me but to be honest I didn't entirely believe that you found that many...but this morning I left my flat to go to work and 90 seconds later, I saw a discarded banana peel!!

Joel Brazil said...

Brilliant post. I’ve now decided for sure the first (and probably last) time I try jellied eels will be as I’m walking out of the country for the last time too.

Farewell you both! All the best.


Loving Annie said...

I live in southern California, so when you get back 'home' if you want to say hello over a bite to eat, that'd be fun !
Have a safe flight back, and next April I'm going to be visiting where you are leaving ! So looking forward to the food - and all of it to see and do in London !

Anonymous said...

You have to know how to eat Pie & Mash and Jellied eels.
First you don't have Pie and Mash as a takeaway, you have it in the shop itself and you go through a ritual, first you break open the pie and douse the vinegar (The vinegar is a non condiment brewed vinegar, not malt). into it then you douse the vinegar over the mash and into the liquor, add salt and pepper to taste. Then you eat a proper prepared Pie & Mash. You can have stewed eels in liquor too. Jellied eels must also be doused in salt vinegar and pepper and accompanied by large chunks of dried bread, ie no butter. Then the jelly comes into its own and you soak up the jelly with the bread. That is the proper East Enders way to eat our traditional fare.

Andy Murdock said...

Thanks - those are helpful tips! You'll never find "how to eat pie and mash" in your average guidebook, that's for sure.

Anonymous said...

thanks for sharing.