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F. Cooke, 9 Broadway Market, E8

The F. Cooke eel, pie and mash shop is a family business with a long vintage, as current owner Bob Cooke explains. The Broadway Market shop was established by Bob’s grandfather in 1900, and the Kingsland Road branch in 1910 – this was sold by the Cooke family in 1997, and is now the Shanghai Chinese restaurant. F. Cooke purvey the same food they always have done, to a dwindling clientele of “real” East Enders”: pies and mash drenched in parsley liquor, stewed eels, jellied eels – and fruit pies with custard for afters.

Mysterious cove eating

Both the menu and the beautiful shop itself, fitted out in 1930 with tiles, a bright stained glass window and a marble counter and tables, are now a rarity. But at the end of World War Two there were over a hundred eel, pie and mash houses in London providing cheap and nutritious fodder for the poor – and the Thames was hoaching with eels.

Disappointingly, Bob Cooke says most of the eels he buys from Billingsgate now are farmed ones from Holland – eel numbers in the Thames have crashed in recent years. But otherwise the business, with its sawdust-scattered floor and bantering welcome, is unchanged. When Eat Hackney visited, among the clientele was a charismatic, weatherbeaten gypsy man wearing a black suit, a battered fedora hat and a scarlet neck scarf. He ate his pie and mash in silence, then was gone.

It’s the Hackney Empire’s new dame. Oh no it isn’t. Oh yes it is!

Stepping outside the shop, I literally bumped into the Hackney Empire’s new dame, sporting flamboyant drag and riffing bawdily to passersby by about cockles.  I followed her through the market as she stopped to sample some German sausage, confiding to the nonplussed stallholder in a gravelly drawl: “I never ‘ad nußknacker before.” And I felt I’d stumbled into an older London, with more than a little magic in it: with music halls and sawdust floors, travellers and an eel-rich Thames.

Scroll down for some eel facts…

Pie, mash and parsley liquor

“Eat More Eels”

Eel facts

Wild eels are born in the Sargasso Sea, the deepest and saltiest part of the Atlantic. The larvae float on the gulf stream to the European coast, transforming into elvers. The elvers then journey upriver, even travelling overland on wet grass at times, and eating voraciously and indiscriminately as they develop into adults. The eels’ riverine life can continue for up to twenty years, and they can grow to be a metre long. Then, in one of the most bizarre and impressive migrations on earth, they swim 4000 miles back to the Sargasso Sea to breed, spawn and die. Eels achieve the mighty Atlantic crossing with no food, their systems being entirely focussed on the production of sperm and eggs.

The mosaic floor at the Shanghai

3 Comments

  1. lee
    Posted 8 Oct ’12 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    How did the eels taste?

    • Eat Hackney
      Posted 8 Oct ’12 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

      Very eely!

  2. Posted 12 Oct ’12 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    I love, love, these posts, Helena. In a few hundred words you’ve given me a history lesson. I think I have eaten eels a couple of times before in my life, when I still lived in Cuba. It’s not a regular presence on our table, I hasten to add. Cod and haddock are more common. I’ve been tempted to try the eel over here but always end ordering good ol’ fish’n'chips (cod, in my case).

    Have a nice weekend.

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