In this new monthly food history series, we’ll take a look at individual foods that originated in – or are otherwise associated with – London. We’ll discuss their history, share their recipes, and tell you where you can currently enjoy them. Occasionally we’ll talk to chefs and food historians too.
It’s apt to begin a series on London food history with London particular: after all, it was the term used to describe various different foods associated with the capital. Additionally, Simpson’s-in-the-Strand, whose chefs are (not entirely accurately) credited with inventing the dish, has recently been in the news as it’s facing closure. And moreover, it’s still chilly enough for you to enjoy a steaming, hearty bowl of this simple, comforting soup.
So what is London particular?
It’s a soup made from yellow or green split peas or dried whole peas, combined with smoked or unsmoked ham, ham hock, gammon or bacon. The traditional London version of the recipe uses only yellow split peas; with vegetables such as onions, carrots and celery added for extra flavour. It should be thick enough to stand a spoon in and eaten as a starter or main meal with fresh, crusty bread.
The name, in particular
According to Jo Swinnerton in ‘The London Companion’ and many other sources, the name, rather unappetisingly, comes from the thick smog caused by air pollution in the 19th century, given a yellowish tinge by gas street lamps — similar in consistency and colour to pea soup.
The natural mists of the Thames estuary combined with the huge amount of smoke from chimneys, coal fires, railways, and cigar and pipe smoke to create a persistent fog that was prevalent from the start of the Industrial Revolution to the original Clean Air Act of 1956. Unimaginably dense and the cause of many a death, it was known variously as pea soup fog, peasouper fog, London fog and London particular. Charles Dickens popularised the term London particular in ‘Bleak House’ – but it had existed for at least a century prior to that. The fog is memorably used in creating spooky atmosphere in the Sherlock Holmes books, Susan Hill’s ‘A Woman In Black’ and many other English literary classics.
The term then twisted around to be playfully adopted by Londoners — most notably the chefs at Simpson’s-in-the-Strand — to name the pea soup it was named after. So then… a fog named after the soup eventually became a soup named after the fog. A few other food and drink items associated with the capital were also named London particular – especially a Madeira wine imported for the London market, also said to be the colour of the London fog.
Pea soup history and associated dishes
The chefs at Simpson’s were said to want to recreate the look of — or even minimise the effects of — peasouper fogs, but they didn’t actually invent the recipe themselves. Pea soup, according to Lizzie Boyd in ‘British Cookery’, dates back to the medieval period. Not only was it found all over Britain, it was, in various guises, popular all over the world. Peas (Pisum sativum) had been growing here since Anglo-Saxon times and dried ones came in several varieties, such as white, black and grey.
In Britain, pea soup began life as pease pottage, a very thick soup made from dried peas and salted bacon. (The idea of using fresh green peas in cooking – considered a highly fashionable delicacy — was only introduced by the French aristocracy much later). The poor weren’t allowed to grow their own fresh vegetables so they had to rely on cheap staples like dried peas. Not only were these inexpensive but also filling, nutritious and easy to store during the winter months in the days before frozen food.
The pottage evolved into pease porridge in the Middle Ages, commonplace right up to 16th and 17th centuries. Peasants and the poor cooked it in a kettle hung over a fire and continuously reheated it, topping up with more peas and vegetables each day. According to Alan Davidson in ‘The Oxford Companion To Food’, cries of “hot grey peas and a suck of bacon” were heard from street vendors as early as King James I’s 16th century reign.
Confusingly, the terms pease porridge and pease pudding have been used interchangeably throughout history — but the more solid form of pease pudding, as we know it today, was first made in the early 17th century when cotton and linen pudding cloth became available. Initially the dried peas were flavoured simply with sugar, pepper and mint. The rich added white wine and spices to their mix. And according to food historian Colin Spencer, peasants ate it with salt and garlic or raw onion. Eventually breadcrumbs, eggs and butter were incorporated to make the dish lighter.
The famous 18th century nursery rhyme, part of the Mother Goose collection, refers to the dish thus:
“Pease pudding hot, pease pudding cold,
Pease pudding in the pot, nine days old;
Some like it hot, some like it cold,
Some like it in the pot, nine days old.”
The pudding, eaten with salt pork, gradually gave rise to the mushy peas that we now eat with fish and chips and meat pies.
Where to eat London particular
In 19th century, London particular was a street food, sold by the pint from hundreds of stalls and taverns around London. Although we haven’t yet found it on the streets of modern-day London, a small number of restaurants — very few in fact — serve it from time to time.
You can currently enjoy it in Islington’s The Drapers Arms, The First Floor Restaurant in Portobello, and One Canada Square. The Old Dairy in Crouch End has a ‘pea and ham soup’ on its menu that’s not specifically referred to as London particular. You’d think a restaurant that pays homage to the soup by naming itself London Particular would always have it on its menu as a signature dish; but no, they only serve it occasionally.
In the past, we have spotted it on the menus of Rex Whistler at Tate Britain, The Restaurant at St Paul’s Cathedral, Harwood Arms, Butlers Wharf Chop House, The Narrow Limehouse, The Water Poet, The Mercer — and, occasionally, Simpson’s-in-the-Strand. The Fish & Chip Shop’s take on London particular — in the form of fritters — has had many restaurant critics swooning with delight. And Morrisons sells an award-winning version of the soup. Last year, Dean Crews, the executive chef at the Charing Cross Hotel, demonstrated a recipe at the Feast of St George in Trafalgar Square organised by the Mayor of London.
And if you want to make your own…
One of the loveliest recipes we’ve found is by Tina Jui, author of The Worktop blog in which she describes the ancient cooking method before giving her modern version (pictured at top of page). Another wonderfully straightforward recipe is described by Karen Burns-Booth in her Lavender and Lovage blog.
Delia, of course, has a reliable recipe; and fans of Downtown Abbey will be delighted by Mrs Patmore’s take in The Unofficial Downtown Abbey Cookbook. When Gordon Ramsay was asked to contribute to the Chelsea Pensioners’ fundraising cookbook ‘A Salute To Cooking’, London particular is the recipe he chose to send in. Mark Hix, too, has a marvellous recipe in British Regional Food; as does Marcus Wareing in The Gilbert Scott Book of British Food.
There’s no shortage of recipes, then — so make the most of these last few days of cold weather by curling up with a bowl of London particular while watching Sherlock. And raise a silver spoon to the historic Simpson’s, which, like the soup itself, may be vanishing in the mists of Dickensian fogs.
Image kindly supplied by Tina Jui of The Worktop