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.
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.
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…
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.