BRITANNIA.COM . . . AMERICA'S GATEWAY TO THE BRITISH ISLES SINCE 1996
A to Z Recipes


by Rosemary Parke


London is cosmopolitan, the capital of the nation, political centre of the Commonwealth and one of the world's leading centres for trade, banking and commerce. People from around the world, particularly from former and existing Commonwealth nations and countries within the European Union,  have made the city their home.  Thousands from all over England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland continue to converge here in search of their proverbial fortunes and of course an essential core of true Londoners remains - those cockneys born within the sound of Bow Bells, the chimes of the church of Mary-le-Bow, which called Dick Whittington back to the City where he eventually prospered and rose to become Lord Mayor.

As befits such an important and international city, anything and everything can be found in London, particularly with regard to food and drink.  There is certainly no shortage of foods from outside of Britain.  Londoners enjoy a staggering choice of foodstuffs to choose from.

Within Britain, too, the very best produce from the provinces is sent to the capital.  Fish from Cornwall or the west coast of Scotland, vegetables and fruit from market gardens in Evesham or Kent, spring lamb from Wales or prime beef from Aberdeen, oak-smoked kippers, Scottish salmon or traditionally-cured hams from Suffolk or Cumberland - all are often easier to come by in London than in their own locality!

London has always been the prime market for farmers and fishermen alike and an efficient nationwide network exists which ensures that their produce and products are on display at such important central markets as Billingsgate (fish) or Smithfield (meat) or the food halls of Harrods or Fortnum & Mason's within hours of being despatched.

It is this very diversity, this fusion of different people and cultures from within Britain as well as from without, that makes London such a colourful and exciting capital.  Yet beneath the noise and bustle of the modern city lies an older, more traditional world which in many ways has changed very little over the centuries.

Just around the corner from Piccadilly Circus, for example, is an area called St James's which appears to be one of London's most intimate and timeless parts.  Here are shops such as Fortnum & Mason, a luxury grocery, now also a department store, founded in 1707 by a footman to Queen Mary.  The area was developed by Henry Jermyn in the seventeenth century and after the Great Fire of 1666 became the favourite residential area of courtiers and gentlemen.

Today, in addition to bespoke tailors and shops selling handmade shoes, hats, pipes and other masculine necessities, St James's also has a concentration of uniquely British gentlemen's clubs within easy reach of the Court of St James's or, for that matter, Westminster and Buckingham Palace.  Clubs such as Boodle's, the RAC, the Reform, the Carlton and others, are institutions of considerable age with exclusive roll-calls of distinguished members.  The food served in the dining rooms of such establishments is solid clubman's fare - roast meats and stews, mixed grills and the like - but these clubs have also contributed classics like Reform cutlets and Reform sauce, Boodle's orange fool and fruit cake and that favourite decadent breakfast tipple, Buck's fizz.

A solid conservative dining tradition is apparent elsewhere in London too.  Establishments such as Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, off Fleet Street, continue to serve fare similar to that which made this ancient and famous inn so popular with Dr. Johnson, such as steak and kidney pudding, roast meats, platters of cold beef and game pies.  Another dish named after a famous writer is Omelette Arnold Bennett which is a supper dish created for him at the Savoy Hotel when he worked as a theatre critic.

Boiled beefNot all of London's food traditions are grand and exclusive by any means.  Equally representative of the capital are those favourite (though diminishing in number) eel and pie shops where Eastenders can still tuck into steaming plates of meat pie or eel served with mashed potatoes and green parsley 'liquor'.  Jellied eels are another cockney favourite available from street stalls in areas such as Aldgate.  Boiled beef and carrots, another simple but delicious cockney staple, was immortalised in a popular music hall song, while bubble and squeak is the whimsical name of a dish which uses left-over potatoes, cabbage and (if there is any) meat.  

Chelsea bunsOf course, there are also delectable Chelsea buns - those sticky spicy buns which have been a great favourite since the seventeenth century when a 'Captain Bun' sold them by the thousands from the Old Chelsea Bun House.  George III used to park his carriage outside the shop, and although no doubt this royal patronage accounted in part for the success of the business, the buns today are as delicious as ever.

London particularGreen pea soup or London particular, thick and warming, gave its name to the fog which once enveloped London so intensely.  Dickens's name for London's famous 'pea soup' fog in Bleak House came to denote not only the fog but also the soup.  Another London soup is Water Souchet - a fish soup, thought to originate from the Dutch dish "waterzootje."

Fried fish (without chips), after all, was the original English street food.  Today mobile fish and chip vans are often about after evening football matches at famous grounds such as White Hart Lane while there is hardly a part of London without its corner chip shop.  Additionally, barrows selling dishes or pints of winkles, prawns, whelks and cockles, all sprinkled with malt vinegar, are a traditional sight in London, as are the cheerful street vendors who roast chestnuts over coal braziers on bitter winter nights.  Another famous fish delicacy is whitebait - whole fry of herrings or sprats which are deep fried and eaten whole.

The old chop houses, taverns and grill rooms in the City and elsewhere in London earned their reputations by serving the Englishman's favourite meats as a Mixed Grill - lamb chops, kidneys, sausages, steaks and gammon - quickly grilled over charcoal and garnished with tomato, mushrooms and watercress.

PubIf both her grandest and her simplest foods seem to recall another age, so do the hundreds of public houses still to be found within the city, with their steamy etched windows, dark mahogany panelling and tall hand pumps for the dispensing of traditionally-brewed ales.  In such a warm atmosphere, having supped a pint or two of real ales, it is not difficult to imagine the London of Dickens. 

All manner of drinks are to be found here, both native and foreign.  London gin is enjoyed around the world, though it is a far cry from the vile concoctions sold in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, where the catch-phrase "Drunk for a penny; dead drunk 2d.", seen over the gin shop in Hogarth's famous etching, must have been common throughout the city.  Today London dry gin is considered the finest of all, unrivalled in quality, purity and flavour.  It is the perfect base for the Englishman's favourite drink, gin and tonic, as well as for other cocktails.

London is a cosmopolitan capital, an international centre for banking and commerce.  Yet in many ways, it remains an intimate town, a collection of so many unique villages and neighbourhoods, all with their own character.  Herein lies its enduring charm.