Saturday, 3 March 2012

Pie and mash in E17

L Manze, half way down Walthamstow's kilometre-long High Street, is one of the last surviving pie and mash shops in London, which means one of the last anywhere because they are a London thing, a survival from the cockney past. It's hard to tell if cockney has become just a historic concept: the real east enders are indistinguishable from the population of Essex, and anyway they're outnumbered by artists and yuppie starter home owners. Likewise, in the High Street the old-style cafes face stiff competition from cappuccino and ciabatta, kebab and falafel, colourful cafes in the American style festooned with memorabilia, and the Turkish places open to the street and displaying a huge range of tempting things, stewed meat dishes, grills, salads and fancy cakes. The pie and mash shop stubbornly stays put, with no concessions whatsoever to the modern world.
     No. 76 L Manze Wholesale and Retail, Live Eel Importer, reads the moderately elaborate shop front, alongside a blue Waltham Forest Heritage plaque. Jellied & Hot Eels. Pie & Mash. I visited in February on impulse, partly because I was cold and hungry but mainly to see what it's like inside. The shop is long and narrow, with dark mahogany bench seats, floor to ceiling tiling and a patterned ceiling. Everything brown, white and sludge green with bold black and white chequer tiles up to waist height. There are mirrors set into the tiles, and big brass and copper pots of aspidistras, those most boring of pot plants. The windows were steamed up and I have to confess to feeling something rather oppressive about the place, a bit claustrophobic even though there were only a few other customers. It's a bit of history all right but I couldn't manage the proper sense of reverence. On the contrary, it made me feel that the old days were when people had modest aspirations and knew their place, before cable TV, four wheel drive cars, holidays abroad and all that supposed social mobility.
     The menu is exactly what it's always been. Quite good meat pies with a thin crust and stewed minced beef inside. Mashed potato, which has to be unappetisingly smeared onto the side of your plate with a giant spatula. 'Liquor', which is a sort of bland but bright green gravy, perhaps made from mushy peas. And then there's the eels, which used to be killed to order if you wanted, or you could take them home alive and risk getting bitten. I'm not sure what happens now, but if you eat them in the shop they come cold in briny colourless jelly - disgusting or delicious depending on your preferences - or hot, which is easier to cope with. That's it, the only other food on offer is fruit pie.
     It is apparently quite popular, especially in the nostalgia stakes: Brits living in California or former E17 residents who have escaped to Suffolk and Kent keep a rosy image of the place and the food, and they will visit when they have a chance. Even so, it's impossible to imagine anyone opening a new pie and mash shop now. Anyone who remembers Cookes in Dalston will tell you it was the best of the pie and mash shops, spacious with lots of mirrors, mahogany and marble and all that, but now it's a Chinese restaurant, so you can still appreciate the decor minus the cockney nosh. That's not altogether a bad thing.

Another view, or perhaps the same view differently expressed, is at