When you join Eating Europe’s East End Food Tour, you’re not just joining another food tour. You’re waltzing through history as you traipse through an area of London once teeming with violence and known to be the home of notorious criminals of days gone by (ahem- Jack the Ripper).
Our guide, Priya, was a bundle of energy with a great sense of humor. As a solo traveler, I appreciated that the beginning of the tour was devoted to introductions and a bit of team building. We walked into the Old Spitalfields market as individuals, but left as a team of foodies with a shared goal of eating all the food.
St. John Bread and Wine
We started at St. John Bread and Wine. In an interview in The Guardian, Anthony Bourdain said of St. John “After my meal I remember tottering unsteadily into the kitchen, getting on to my knees and bowing down in front of Fergus. It really was the restaurant of my dreams. I loved absolutely everything about it: the attitude, the look, the food, the wine.” And who can argue with him? Chef Fergus Henderson is a proponent of the nose to tail eating philosophy, prompting unusual menu items like deviled kidneys on toast and blood cake, fried egg and brown sauce in effort to not waste anything.
Given the list of body parts the chef uses, we were a bit concerned as we walked into the restaurant named one of the best 50 in the world. But we needn’t have worried… Priya started our tour perfectly with a bacon sandwich that is the stuff of dreams. The bacon is from a rare breed of pig known as the Gloucester old spot, reared at Butts Farm, brined in saltwater for two weeks, dried for two weeks, then smoked achieving a complex and delicious flavour. At the end of the tour, the majority of our group voted this as their favorite.
The English Restaurant
My favorite kind of tour is one that pays no regard to dessert happening at the end of the meal. Imagine my delight when we stopped in The English Restaurant for some bread and butter pudding. The restaurant dates to the 17th century and the dessert dates all the way back to the 13th century! This isn’t typically my favorite dessert, but if all bread and butter puddings tasted like this, I’d change my mind.
Made from rich, buttery brioche, sultanas, orange zest and vanilla custard with a caramelized top and served with extra custard to pour over, the pudding was rich and not in the least mushy. Eating this dish in a converted nut factory that survived the great fire of London, with church pew booths and floor boards from the old hospital is a bit like stepping into a tasty time machine.
As we walked from restaurant to restaurant, Priya regaled us with tales of past and present, weaving a quilt that tells the story of London’s East End. She shared that the name Old Spitalfields comes from the fact that this used to be the location of the old hospital. As time passed, the Old Spitalfields transitioned to their current use: a market. During WWII, the men of the fruit and vegetable market purchased a spitfire plane named Fruitation with hopes to add to the war effort. (We also learned the sad fate of Fruitation’s first flight.)
At Poppies, I tried mushy peas for the first time. As one of the Brits on our tour quipped “it’s like Marmite… you either love it or you hate it.” I can’t say I fall into the love category, but hate is such a strong word! Along with mushy peas, we tried fish and chips. Did you know that fish and chips are the Brits 10th favorite smell? Any idea what the first nine favorites are?
Poppies is lined with Cockney rhyming slang, created as a language to hide their true intentions from police. I loved learning that there’s even a rhyming slang using my name! “Let’s go for a few Britneys” means to go drink a few beers (rhymes with Spears).
We couldn’t help knocking at 4 Princelet St, an amazing example of Georgian housing. In the 1600s, the area housed French Protestant (Huguenots) refugees who worked in the silk industry. The 18th Century saw Irish weavers move in to escape the potato famine. Later the area was home to Jewish refugees in the textile industry. Built in 1724, 4 Princelet Street is a home frozen in time and stands as a testament to those who have passed its pink exterior.
Just around the corner, we tried not to gawk when Priya pointed out the home owned by Game of Thrones actor Jonathan Pryce, who played The High Sparrow.
Pride of Spitalfields
Stepping into the Pride of Spitalfields felt like having a beer in my British friend’s living room.
Welcomed by Lenny the famous pub cat, we enjoyed a couple of Britneys (remember our Cockney rhyming slang?!). The locals know to steer clear of Lenny’s favorite seat, leaving him room to preside over the pub from comfort.
We craned our necks on Brick Lane at the painting created by famous Belgian street artist, Roa. Originally intended as a heron, Roa changed course mid-painting when a Bengali asked if it was the Sacred Crane of Bangladesh.
The rest of the group can have the bacon sandwich as their favorite, but I think the East End food tour saved the best for last. Pizza East is set in a former tea warehouse in Shoreditch and has a modern, hipster feel to it. No London foodie experience is complete without a cup of tea (with milk, of course) and cake. And boy, does Pizza East know how to do cake! We each receive a slice of the most amazingly rich and delicious salted chocolate caramel tart, which left me satisfied and on a bit of a sugar high.
I can’t give away all of Eating Europe’s secrets, but can tell you that we also had delicious curry in an area of town incorrectly classified as Indian, heard cheesy jokes while tasting some delicious fromage at a shop that provides cheese to Buckingham Palace, and found out where to find the best beigel (not bagel!) that is as smooth as a baby’s bum. Whether you live here or are following a whirlwind London itinerary, I think everyone should book an East End Food Tour!
I also went on a Twilight Trastevere Tour in Rome where we had a cocktail party in a 2,000 year old wine cellar eating a dish created from Julius Caesar’s chef’s recipe. I can attest to the high level of fun across their tours!
Disclaimer: I was invited on Eating Europe’s East End Food Tour, but as always, all opinions are my own!
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