There are a number of renowned drinks named after the capital — such as London ale and London porter — but when you think about foods, nothing immediately springs to mind.
Here we tell you about eight (mostly traditional) foods named after London. We followed certain rules when compiling this list. None of the foods are brand or company names. There’s nothing generic (such as ‘London honey’), nor gimmicky like a ‘London burger’ that might be vaguely shaped like the London Eye.
Most of the dishes are historical and there’s also a contemporary item. The majority originated in London; others we’re not so sure about. They’re all either regional variations of existing English dishes, or created as a tribute to our great city.
Start your day of London-y eating with a breakfast of London buns (also once popular for afternoon tea). Not to be confused with the more famous Chelsea buns, these are small, raised, glazed, egg-enriched buns flavoured with candied lemon and orange peel.
Most food historians and food writers believe that the London bun is a variation of the Bath bun (spiced currant bun with a sugar crust); indeed it’s also known as the London Bath bun. It is said to have been created during the Great Exhibition of 1851, when nearly a million were sold.
To keep up with the high demand, however, the bakers cut corners, replacing butter with lard and using cheaper ingredients. This resulted in a lowering of quality, and poor imitations abounded. Elizabeth David, in English Bread and Yeast Cookery (1977), dismissed them as “a version downgraded by bakers into amorphous, artificially coloured, synthetically flavoured and over-sugared confections”.
A few historians, however, claim that London buns date back to the 1930s. Dorothy Gladys Spicer, in From An English Oven (1948), says that London bakeries at the time baked two categories of buns: those made from bun dough were named Mr London Bun, and ones from bread dough were known as the London Johnny Boy.
In The Oxford Companion To Food (1999), Alan Davidson mentions a London bun that seems different from both the London Bath bun and Mr London Bun. He describes it as “a finger-shaped bun made from a rich yeast dough which may include currants, and sometimes caraway seeds. The bun is topped with white sugar icing after baking. The way in which the icing spreads out prompted an alternative name, ‘candlegrease buns’”.
Whatever the original London bun is, it’s hard to find it in London today. We have occasionally seen London buns at Little Bread Pedlar at the Spa Terminus market. Confusingly, there are London buns popular in Australia that are flavoured with non-traditional ingredients such as coconut, honey and apricot jam.
So now it’s time for lunch. Start with a bowl of London particular — yellow split pea and ham soup, said to have resembled the Dickensian fogs of 19th century London. We’ve already told you about it in great detail here.
You want to eat your soup with bread — and what better choice than the London bloomer? A bloomer is bread that’s allowed to ‘bloom’ (rise without the confines of a bread tin) — and the London version is believed to have been created by London bakeries during world war two. It’s oblong and flat-bottomed, with a thicker, crisper crust than ordinary bloomer. It’s often made from higher protein flour and fermented for longer, resulting in a dense texture and a complex, nutty flavour.
The distinctive feature of London bloomer is that it has seven to 13 diagonal slashes on top. It’s believed that seven allowed a thick slice for each day of the week during rationing; whereas 13 symbolises Christ and his 12 disciples. The fancier versions are sprinkled with poppy or sesame seeds.
Flour Power City sells organic sourdough London bloomers in two sizes. The Flour Station, too, sells Great Taste Award-winning London white and London wholemeal in two sizes, in both sliced and unsliced versions. The wholemeal variety is made from flour milled by Wright’s Baking in Enfield, using wheat from Benton’s Farm in Essex, making it a truly local loaf.
By now you’re ready for pie. London pie was widely eaten in the 1950s, especially in the south and east of London. Probably created in the post-war kitchen, it’s a potato-topped minced beef pie flavoured with cooking apples, sultanas and curry powder — flavours that would have been considered exotic at the time. The cute touch was mashed potato squares piped on top to resemble neat little tiles, perked up with a garnish of tomato halves.
Far more exotic — and exciting — is a recipe for ‘the London pye’ that dates back to the 17th century. Swiss-born, London-living physician Sir Theodore Mayerne gives a recipe in his cookery book Archimagirus Anglo-Gallicus (published posthumously in 1658). This pie is made from a tantalising mix of sparrows or larks, bone marrow, potatoes and other root vegetables, lettuces, chestnuts, dates, oysters, preserved citron, artichokes, hard-boiled egg yolks, sliced lemons, pickled barberries, currants, mace, liquor, white wine, butter, sugar and pepper. Eat your heart out, Ottolenghi.
So now you’re ready to round off your lunch with something sweet like cheesecake. Except that London cheesecake is not a cheesecake. There’s no cheese in it, and it’s not a cake. It’s a puff pastry pie filled with jam and ground almonds, topped with icing sugar and thick shreds of coconut. It was massively popular in the 1950s and 60s, when it sometimes came with psychedelic pink icing.
London cheesecake is widely available in bakery chains such as Wenzel’s and Greggs; plus many supermarkets. But why is it called a ‘cheese’ cake? Most people believe it’s because the coconut shreds resemble grated cheese; though a few say that the pastry originally contained cheese curds, before being replaced by jam and almond frangipane.
To add to the confusion, Nigella gives an old family recipe for London cheesecake that is, in fact, a classic New York cheesecake.
For dinner, you fancy a juicy steak. London broil is a North American dish that’s barely known in London. The internet is awash with recipes ranging from Filipino-style broil, to one cooked with salted caramel. However, the original broil is made simply by marinating beef for a few hours, grilling (broiling) it over high heat, and cutting it across the grain into thin slices.
Some American butchers confusingly call tough cuts of meat, such as ‘top round steak’ and flank London broil (as they're used in the dish), but it’s a method of cooking rather than a cut of meat. To add to the confusion, in Canada, minced beef, veal or pork sausage patty wrapped in flank or round steak is also known as London broil.
So London broil is the only item on our list that didn’t originate in London, right? Not so fast. Charles Dickens mentions a London steak in The Country Gentleman’s Magazine in 1868. In language so evocative it would make a modern food writer blush, he describes how to cook thick, juicy rump steak by beating and then broiling it. The velvety, melt-in-the-mouth result is eaten with minced shallots and catsup (a version of ketchup). So it’s more than likely that London steak is the forefather of London broil.
Time for a good old British pudding. Except that nobody really knows what London pudding is, as there are three very different recipes for it.
Thomas R Allinson’s marvellous Allinson Vegetarian Cookery Book (originally published in 1915) gives a recipe for “a most delicious” London pudding made from the bread and flour company’s own steamed oats, milk, sugar and custard, all baked together.
The London pudding of The Best Way — A Book of Household Hints and Recipes (also originally from 1915) sounds like a wartime rationing recipe. It’s made by slicing leftover stale buns or cake pieces, spreading them with jam, sprinkling with grated suet, and baking the whole lot in an egg custard.
Much later in 1948, Mrs E.W. Kirk gives a London pudding recipe in her cookbook Tried Favourites that’s an altogether fancier affair. It’s essentially a puff pastry tart spread with apricot jam, layered with sponge biscuits, covered with a lemon custard, and baked with an egg meringue on top.
Like London pie, London pudding is said to have been hugely popular in south and east London in the 1950s — though we don’t know which version.
What better way to finish your day of London-themed eating than with a platter of Londonshire? Made by Tottenham-based Wildes Cheese this is a best-selling cow’s milk cheese made from single-herd Jersey milk sourced directly from the farmer.
Londonshire is soft, rich and creamy, with a deliciously unctuous, medium-strength flavour and a smooth white coat. It’s eaten on its own or with crackers, and can also be baked or barbecued. There’s a smoked version that’s heated over beech and apple wood.
Why name a cheese after London? Keith Sides, a director at Wildes, tells us: “We are urban cheese makers making cheese in north London, and wanted [one] that could be linked to the capital, in the same way that Lancashire, Leicestershire, Cheshire etc. are linked to [those] areas of Britain... It is our homage to a city we love — a cheese made in London, named after London, for London”.
Londonshire is the only contemporary item on our list — but it is made using historic British cheese-making traditions of other ‘shire’ cheeses. Today’s enduringly popular and delicious foods are, after all, part of tomorrow’s food history.