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ambrosia /amˈbrəʊzɪə/

noun 1. GREEK & ROMAN MYTHOLOGY The food of the gods, often depicted as conferring longevity or immortality upon whoever consumed it. It was brought to the gods in Olympus by doves and served by either Hebe or Ganymede at the heavenly feast.

Not sure about the dove reference, but the rest of it is pretty well spot on. At this point I have to declare that there is a certain bias on my behalf about the subject and just in case you’re still in the dark, I’m talking about Pie ‘n’ Mash.

Just a brief history of the pie. It is thought to originate from Ancient Egypt sometime around 2500 BC. It was a paste made from ground oats or wheat wrapped around a honey filling. It was the Greeks who first developed a pastry made with flour and water, but it was the Romans around the second century BC who created the meat pies that are common today, bringing them with them during the conquest of Britain in 43 AD.

So that’s why the pie has become etched into the national psyche, its been here for almost 2000 years. Street sellers, taverns and shops have all plied their trade throughout the centuries, but its not until the early eighteenth century that the art of pie making and the creation of establishments renowned for the quality of their pies starts to be documented. One such was the Farthing Pye House, which opened in 1708, where you could buy a mutton pie for a farthing. It is shown on Rocques map of 1746, both the pie house and Bilson’s Farm opposite now sit below the fringes of Regent’s Park.

The Farthing Pye House

The transition from these early establishments specialising in quality pies to the cult of Pie ‘n’ Mash is difficult to trace, but looking through trade directories in the mid 19th century their forerunners make an appearance. In 1842 I found the following.

F Tate. Pie House 4 Porter Street, Soho

Henry Blanchard. Eel Pie House 101 Union Street, Borough

At this time pies were still usually made from mutton, this being the cheapest of meats, but the latter shows that an even cheaper alternative was being produced using eels, a readily available and abundant source being found in the (polluted) River Thames.

Its not until the 1890 that the recognisable Pie n Mash shop appears.

The oldest surviving shop is M.Manze’s in Tower Bridge Road opened in 1892. Manze’s opened several shops in London, as did another pie family, Cooke’s.

These shops served the recognisable fare that some of us know and love today. The pies contain a minced meat filling and the appearance of the mash potatoes on the side date from that time.

Eels were still available in pies back then, but over the years they have now become something of a side dish, either served cold known as Jellied eels or hot, served in liquor.

This green looking gravy, known as liqour is a thing of mysterious beauty.

Tradition dictates that the liquor be made from the water that the eels have been cooked in. Today most shops will add parsley to their liquor, but I have read accounts of some cooks back in the 18th century using chervil, apparently because it grew wild in the streets of London. The other must have accompaniments to go with your meal are salt, white pepper and vinegar (non brewed condiment is best and in some shops it is laced with chillies). The traditional connoisseur’s eating utensils consist of a spoon and a fork.

The heyday of the shops was in the early part of the 20th century right through until the early 1960s, but unfortunately tastes changed and the traditional Pie ‘n’ Mash shop went into decline. Thankfully, some remain and are recognised for their architectural and cultural significance, and a resurgence of interest in British culture and cuisine seem to boad well for their continued place on the high street. The traditionally tiled walls, mirrors and marble worktops and floors, fairly standard for their day and selected on account of being quick and easy to clean, now have a hallowed feeling of authenticity to them (the sawdust that once covered the floors for spat out eel bones has, thankfully, been left to the past).

There’s also the communal spirit of these shops. During busy periods you’re more than likely to have to share a table with total strangers. A recollection of a City worker I read once described the eating of pie ‘n’ mash as a truly egalitarian experience, “…barra boys and bankers sat at the same table, passing the vinegar along with comments on the worlds problems”.

And as they say, “That’s what it says on the tin” you get pie, mash, liquor and eels. Some shops push the culinary boundaries and offer a pudding, but that’s quite a difficult one to tackle after a Triple Double (three pies and two portions of mash).

I know its not everyones cup of tea (another must have), its usually the eels that put people off, but I can assure you there are no eels in the pies. Most surviving shops offer a vegetarian option and I’ve also seen Vegan pies in some shops. So if you’re in the vicinity of a shop and you have never tried it, get yourself in there and try a plateful.

However, beware! Any shops selling pie ‘n’ mash who describe the liquor as “Jus“, or have added anything extra to it like “white wine & wholegrain mustard“, should be avoided like a well known virus currently doing the rounds. Also “Duck & Chorizo” to my mind is not a traditional pie filling.

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