Leytonstone's Noted Eel and Pie House has been serving since 1977, but the family-run business has dealt in cockney grub, more or less, since the first world war.
Pie and mash was once a cheap meal for the poorer classes in London's East End. In the 1800s, street vendors hawked eels from the Thames estuary and pies filled with off-cuts of meat, served with mashed potatoes and liquor. For the uninitiated, liquor is nothing to do with booze; it's boiled eel-water mixed with parsley sauce. And it can be euphoric.
"The aroma of fresh pies hits you in the face"
It's a big Saturday for local team, Leyton Orient, as I enter the Noted Eel and Pie House. Among a small sea of red and white, locals are jostling for their weekly dose of tradition. The aroma of fresh pies smacks you in the face. Greeting the tabard-wearing server, I order my own personal tipple: double pie, double mash. She duly flips two pies, fresh from the oven, onto a plate, with two scoops of mash.
It costs me the princely sum of £6.10.
"Liquor?" she asks.
"Does anyone say no to liquor?" I counter.
"Some do," she says.
My inner cockney starts to weep. People say no to liquor in a pie and mash shop? What's the world coming to?
The interior hasn't changed since the 1960s
Carrying a full plate, spoon and fork (no knife, the pie and mash universe doesn't allow such a utensil), I land a few words with guv'nor Peter Hak. The shop, he says, passed from his father; to cousin Len and finally to him. Len still prepares the pies, though, using a Crawford pie pressing machine, the standard in the olde pie shop world.
The Haks' ancestors were Dutch eel fishermen — or 'schuyts' (named after the barges they sailed in). These schuyts served London for centuries, continuing to haul eels into the city, even during the plague.
Peter's great grandfather, of a Dutch eel fisherman family, met and married the daughter of Newton pie and mash. Hak, with the help of his new family, opened his first pie and mash shop.
The interior of the shop we're in now hasn't changed since the 1960s. White walls, rickety red hardwood benches and historical photos of London's pie shop adorn the interior. It's like eating in the Museum of Pie and Mash.
"I've been coming here since forever"
I interrupt pie and mash enthusiasts, Bill and wife Philomena, from Plaistow. They've taken two buses to get here. As he talks, Bill rips open his pie with a fork in one hand and spoon in the other; allowing the gravy to swirl into the liquor. Bill's a man after my own congealing heart. We talk of the pie shops that are no longer with us — like Lediard's in Stratford, Robins in East Ham, Nathan's on Barking Road and Cooke's in Broadway Market, which closed recently. Gradually these institutions are circling the drain, owing to high-yield spots in extortionate parts of London.
Orient fans Paul and Sarah are with their family, at a nearby table. Many different generations at two tables. The couple, from Chester, follow the Orient as often as they can. They come for pie and mash every time. John, a local lad in his Orient polo shirt, says he's been coming here "since forever".
"This stuff's ingrained in us. It's a tradition"
With closures going on all around it, the Noted Eel and Pie House has held on tight, moving into the centre of the community. Peter tells me he tries to promote local artists, hence the photographs on the walls by Jake Green. You can buy several titles at the Eel and Pie House including Stuart Freedman’s The Englishman and The Eel — a book which features Peter on the cover holding aloft a six-foot eel.
Speaking of which, there's a touch of theatre to this place; Peter's is one of the few shops that has live eels, squirming about in a tray out the back. He also debones the beef meat himself — bought directly from Smithfield — before mincing, and makes his own vinegar.
Gary, a West Ham fan, enthuses about how his dad would bring him and his two brothers here on match day. "This stuff's ingrained in us," he says, "like being a West Ham fan. It's a tradition."
By Mark Wincott
Noted Eel & Pie Shop, 481a High Road Leytonstone, E11 4JU