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Friday 8th
posted by Morning Star in Features

PETER FROST reveals himself as a great connoisseur and mean devourer of properly liquored pie ‘n’ mash dishes but bemoans the increasing disappearance of the traditional shops that served them around east London

Manze’s in Chapel Market, Islington, have been selling Londoners one of their favourite dishes since 1911. Stewed eels, small meat pies and mash all smothered in green parsley sauce — always called liquor — provided lunch and supper for both shoppers and stall holders in this popular London street market.

Manze’s is now owned by Tim Nicholls, who took over the much loved pie and mash shop in 1985. When final family member Lydia Manze died she had worked in the shop for 60 years.

One branch of the famous Manze family first opened in Chapel Market in 1911 and ownership stayed in the family until Nicholls took over.

The Manze name is still common for other non or distantly related eel pie and mash shops around London. There are shops with the Manze’s name in Tower Bridge Road, Bermondsey, Peckham, Sutton and Walthamstow.

Now Islington’s Manze’s is closing. Nicholls confirmed the closure to me blaming high business rates — he expected the Islington shop will close by Christmas. But he has opened a new shop in Braintree High Street.

This latest move is part of a migration of eel, pie and mash shops from the rapidly gentrifying east London to more outlying Essex towns.

My mother-in-law used to stew eels at home — she would buy them live and wriggling and boil them in a bright green parsley sauce that she always called “liquor” to be served with mashed potatoes.

The London of my and my wife’s youth was full of eel, pie and mash shops. They served stewed eel, mash and lots of liquor and you could add a simple minced beef pie to complete what is still for us one of the great dishes of world cuisine.

Eel, pie and mash shops can still be found in London (Castle’s Pie & Mash in Camden) but you need to search them out. Many cockneys have migrated out to Essex and Kent and the good news is they have taken their eel, pie and mash eating habits with them.

A favourite out-of-town eel, pie and mash eatery of ours is the Maldon pie & mash eel house in the pretty little sailing barge port of Maldon on the Blackwater estuary in Essex.

Its owner Bill Ferguson was a fireman in East Ham until he retired to the Maldon. He only has to say hello to betray his cockney origins but his accent is one quite common in Maldon as many east Londoners have made this their home to enjoy the clean sea air and the countryside.

Ferguson and many of his fellow East Enders loved their new home but missed their East End eel, pie & mash so he set up an eatery to provide just that.

The look of the shop is traditional with lots of white tiles and so is the food. A plate of eels, mash and liquor with a small minced steak pie will cost £8.30 and it is the real thing; filling and nourishing yet delicate and delicious.

The place always seems to be busy and the talk from the other tables might convince you are in the Queen Vic in TV’s Albert Square and you might be best not to say anything rude about West Ham football club. Once you have enjoyed your eels & mash the puddings here too are traditional — spotted dick, treacle sponge, rhubarb crumble, all served with custard, what else?

The real dilemma for a Londoner with a green conscience is should we be eating eels at all? There is no doubt that over many years eel stocks have become depleted. Yet every few years a particularly good flush of baby eels or elvers arriving from their epic journey from the Sargasso Sea gives renewed hope for a sustainable population.

No-one knows why eels are disappearing. With food tastes changing eels have become less popular so it’s unlikely to be overfishing. Climate change must be high on the list of likely causes. So what do we know about the mystery of the disappearing eel? Actually we don’t really know much about the eel at all.

Take their amazing lifestyle. Most scientists believe that European eels originate from the seaweed forests of the Sargasso Sea far across the Atlantic Ocean.

After a long life in European waters, 20-year-old adults swim back across the Atlantic to spawn and then die. The tiny worm-like glass eels hatch and then spend up to three years drifting back across the ocean to arrive back at the very same waters their parents once inhabited.

On that epic journey to the rivers and waters of their origin they turn into small worm-like elvers and live in these waters for two decades growing longer and fatter and changing colour from gold to silver.

Europeans eat eels in huge quantities; the Japanese import them for the vast sushi market.

In Britain we eat a few — very expensive elvers in season as well as some smoked eel, a far better delicacy than smoked salmon.

A reducing number of loyal Londoners still appreciate eel, pie and mash. I eat it as often as my wavering conscience will allow. Jellied eels too are popular, bought from roadside stalls or even supermarkets.

But the eel keeps its secrets. Incredibly, in this age where wildlife cameras and film teams seem to have captured most of the secrets of nature, they have never captured the mating and spawning of the eel.