Forget architecture and culture — it’s in food that London’s creativity really lies. From fish and chips to Earl Grey tea, have a taste of the iconic British foods invented in the capital.
Don’t let the name fool you. Though our tartan-wearing cousins might argue otherwise, Alan Partridge’s treat of choice was probably born right here in the Big Smoke. And it has a rather posher origin story than you might expect. Fortnum & Mason’s, department store to the Queen, claims it invented Scotch eggs as a portable snack for aristocratic clients who were about to rumble off in carriages to their country estates. Beats a Greggs pasty on the National Express to Chelmsford, doesn’t it?
In the late 19th century, Bermondsey was known as ‘Biscuit Town’ because of the enormous biscuit factory that stood there. The Willy Wonka-types at Peek Freans came up with many of the nation’s favourite biscuits, including the deliciously chocolatey bourbon. They also invented Twiglets, but the less said about those knobbly monstrosities the better.
Fish and chips
Food historians have argued for years over whether the first fish and chip shop in Britain was in London or in Manchester, but I’d bet my last pickled onion that this great and glorious fast food has its roots in the capital. And like so many London stories, it’s all about immigration. Jewish refugees fleeing from Europe brought over the tradition of frying fish in flour; before long, the crunchy potatoes beloved of Huguenot immigrants from France and Belgium had joined them on the plate. Genius.
Omelette Arnold Bennett
A staple of posh hotel breakfasts, this rich and smoky fish omelette was invented at the Savoy Hotel in 1929. It was created for the writer Arnold Bennett, who was staying at the hotel while he finished a novel. He loved it so much, he diva-ishly insisted it was made for him wherever he went. Mariah Carey’s got nothing on Arnold.
All right, it’s true that the spirit which inspired gin, genever, is Dutch. But gin was really born in London in the 1700s, when thirsty Londoners started distilling Mother’s Ruin in their own homes. The tasty tipple proved a little too popular — by 1723, one in four homes in London’s poorest areas housed a rudimentary gin operation, or ‘dram shop’, and the streets were filled with gin addicts desperately seeking their next hit. A far cry from your genteel Friday-night gin and tonic.
Oh hello, it’s the Savoy Hotel again. Peach Melba, if you’re not quite sure, is a scrumptious summer dessert featuring poached peaches, a raspberry sauce and ice cream. It was created in the 1890s by the Savoy’s feted chef Auguste Escoffier, in honour of the Australian opera singer Nellie Melba, who was performing nearby. He also dreamt up ‘Melba toast’ for her, at which point I like to imagine his boss quietly asked him to stop inventing dishes and get on with making the scrambled eggs for breakfast.
Once again, don’t be fooled by those Scots. Though most smoked salmon today comes from the bonnie hills of Scotland, the delicacy as we know it today was first made by immigrant Jewish families in the old East End of London. They used to ship the prized fish from Eastern Europe, smoking it not because they loved the flavour, but simply because it preserved the fish in the days before refrigeration. The last surviving London smokehouse is Forman’s near Stratford, which you can still visit today.
You know that drink that you always order at 11pm, even though it will keep you up all night, because it’s just so damn delicious? The story goes that it was invented in Soho in the 1980s, when a misbehaving model walked into a bar and demanded a drink that would ‘wake me up and **** me up’. The bartender glanced at his booze bottles, then glanced at the coffee machine. History — and chronic insomnia — were made.
The sticky syrup that contains the delicious secret to really good flapjacks would actually be going straight in the bin if it wasn’t for a canny Victorian called Abram Lyle. In the 1880s, Lyle owned a sugar factory, and noticed that the refining process was creating a sweet golden liquid as a by-product. He started to sell it, and today Tate & Lyle’s golden syrup is a household staple. The original factory still stands proudly on the banks of the Thames today. You can’t miss it: there’s a giant version of the famous green-and-gold tin mounted on the wall.
Earl Grey tea
This fragrant tea blend is thought to have been created for Charles Grey, prime minister in the 1830s, who made it the most fashionable drink in London society (think of it as the turmeric latte of its day). Two London tea shops, Jacksons of Piccadilly and Twinings, both claim to have been the first to produce it, so it’s them you can blame if you can’t stand the stuff.
Leah Hyslop is a lifestyle writer and editor, specialising in food and drink. A former editor at The Telegraph, she is now Food Director of Sainsbury's Magazine. Follow her on Twitter @leahhyslop.