a fascinating, gag-inducing yet hunger-stimulating food walk of london

i just spent the most fantastically fun and educational food day wandering around london on a food walk and then exploring the mindblowingly incredible borough market. we’ll get to the borough market food porn in a later post, but for now be prepared to be inundated with a history of london eating, from the filthy and disgusting to the sublimely delicious, thanks to today’s food walk.

what’s a food walk, you ask? my absolutely cracking british friend michelle, who i met at sxsw, invited me on this guided tour where you walk around the city with someone versed in a subject like shakespeare’s london or hidden pubs in the city and other topics of that sort. she did a beatles walk with her mum, which is actually something i would like to with my own mum when she comes to visit in june. the point of this walk was to talk about the role of food in london’s history and then end up at the famous borough market just south of london bridge. our guide, ann, was a lovely and knowledgable woman who was very funny and full of random tidbits of history and food trivia. she reminded us of someone’s very british aunt who would welcome you into her home and serve you tea. and as michelle pointed out, it would most certainly be from a proper cup and saucer and not a mug.over the course of two hours, ann dropped mad science on the edible history of the city. here are some of my favorite gems of information to pass on to you, dear readers.

ann the tour guide in vinopolis

here’s our wonderful guide explaining a bit about london’s highly alcoholic history.

a monument to london’s gluttony.

we started at monument underground station, site of a monument to the great london fire of 1666 which raged for 4 days and nights and destroyed over 13,000 homes. the cause of the whole disaster? someone in the king’s bakery on pudding lane left something in an oven, and the resulting fire spread from pudding lane across the city to pie corner.  unsurprisingly, the london clergy at the time claimed the tragedy to be ‘a result of london’s gluttony.’ oh, those clergymen. obviously no appreciation for the finer things in life.

maybe i won’t have the pudding for dessert.

before we left the monument, ann explained that while most of us would associate pudding with a steak and kidney pudding, pudding in the middle ages actually meant animal entrails. my thoughts here: 1. huh? pudding = chocolate, or maybe jello, and thus bill cosby. 2. it still blows my mind sometimes that we’re in a place with history that goes back to the middle ages (and way farther, obviously). anyway, pudding lane was thus named due to the population of butcher shops nearby, all of whom tossed the animal entrails into the neighboring ditch. the most entertaining aspect of this bit of food etymology? eventually, laws had to be passed limiting the length of discarded intestines to less than a yard. why? to minimize the likelihood of unsuspecting passersby getting entangled and possibly strangled in an extended mass of entrails. gross. that would not be a pleasant way to go.

street food i’d rather avoid.

i’ll eat just about anything, but some of the popular snacks in ye olde london don’t exactly stimulate my taste buds. i found it interesting that take-away (take-out or to-go in Americanese) shops existed in london as far back as the 12th century. one of their most popular delicacies, god knows why, was hot sheep’s feet. ann explained that someone who found him or herself in possession of a sheep in those days would have to determine whether it would be more financially beneficial to sell their sheep for glue or as food. if he could get a better price for food, the common recipe was to boil for an hour, then hire a young man or woman to clean the hooves and scrape out all the dirt and grime. the next step would be to boil an additional three hours, and then eat. YUM. NOT.

fish worship.

our walk took us to the london bridge on the northern bank of the thames, location of the amusingly named building of the ‘worshipful company of fishmongers.’ apparently fish played a big role in the diet of londoners, especially pre-reformation. lots of people know about not eating meat on fridays but due to an abundance of religious laws back in the day, meat consumption was actually forbidden on more days than it was allowed. this was less of an issue for london’s lower classes, who primarily subsisted on a cheaper vegetarian diet anyway. however, the dietary restrictions meant that wealthier london residents consumed a great deal of fish as a meat replacement. this was obviously a boon to the fishing industry, but an interesting socio-historical ramification is that the government also greatly supported the rise in fishermen numbers because it meant that more men knew their way around boats and therefore could be of great use to the british navy if the country ever went to war.

the evolution of fruit and veg.

i enjoyed hearing ann’s fascinating tales on the mysterious world of fruit and veg (britspeak for vegetables) in historical london. in tudor times, vegetables were considered peasant food; king henry the 8th’s court consumed an average of 3 pounds of meat a day per person. unlike the prince of wales who is going around visiting farms, king henry did not run an  environmentally friendly ship. asparagus and peas were considered acceptable, mostly because they grow above ground. potatoes, carrots, turnips, and other veggies grown underground were considered by some to be a food of the devil.

my favorite veg story: at one point, people shot beetroot juice up their noses as a cure for diseases of the brain. as my new friend eamon said, whoever came up with that one must have laughed their ass off the rest of their life at the morons squirting liquid up their noses.

my favorite fruit story: according to ann, pineapple was THE snob fruit back in the day. aristocrats would go to such lengths to grow pineapples, which required gardeners, hothouses, and so many other costs in the british climate that it would cost as much as $5k for EACH pineapple. man, those tudors were seriously energy inefficient. if you couldn’t afford to grow your own pineapples, you could even rent one as a centerpiece for your party, but you’d better hope that none of your guests got wasted and cut open a $5k decoration. yeesh.

railing on london.

ann spoke a fair amount about how the arrival of the railroad revolutionized the dietary situation of londoners in 1836. all of a sudden, cattle could arrive on trains instead of being walked all the way from wales. fish could arrive fresh fron the southern coast in time to be sold at the morning markets. but most of all, the railroad fundamentally changed londoner’s relationship with milk. finally, people in the city could have access to farm-fresh milk instead of old, filthy, curdled milk that took ages to arrive from the countryside and encountered these frightening things during the delivery process:

the milk itself should not pass unanalysed, the produce of faded cabbage leaves and sour draff, lowered with hot water, frothed with bruised snails, carried through the streets in open pails, exposed to foul rinsings discharged from doors and windows, spittle, snot, and tobacco quids from foot passengers, over-flowings from mud carts, spatterings from coach wheels, dirt and trash chucked into it by rogeish boys for the joke’s sake, the spewings of infants, who have slabbered in the tin measure, which is thrown back in that condition among the milk for the benefit of the next customer; and finally, the vermin that drops from the rags of the nasty drab that vends this precious mixture, under the respectable denomination of Milk Maid…..

ann recited that excellent quote from the 18th century writer Tobias Smollett, which i found here. i also enjoyed learning that the tin can was invented in 1812 and was produced in a factory just on the southern bank of london bridge, but the opener wasn’t invented for another 40 years. hilarious.

the tootah banana!

one of the best parts of the whole day, which michelle and i are still laughing about, involves the tootah banana. ann, whose accent i sometimes had trouble deciphering, told a story about how a tootah banana had been discovered during an archeological excavataion near london bridge. i only discovered about 20 minutes later that she meant a TUDOR banana. stupid americans. anyway, this discovery was a big deal because it was found in a pile of rubbish dating back to 1560, about a century before the first recorded banana in london. ann was fascinated by the story and tried to do some research but found nothing on the banana. she ended up calling the museum in charge of the excavation, upon which an extremely embarassed curator related that the banana wasn’t actually a relic from tudor times, but in fact had been the remains of some recent archeologist’s or workman’s lunch. mystery of the tootah banana, solved.

if by any chance you’ve made it through all this history, i will now reward you with a photo of the anchor pub on the thames, located a few windy cobblestoned streets away from borough market. i’ve spent a  good chunk of the last two saturdays sitting on the patio looking over the river and drinking from a pitcher of pimm’s cup. not a bad life. apparently i’m in good company too – ann says it’s highly likely that shakespeare spent time here, as the globe theatre is just a short way down the river.

the anchor pub on the thames

i know i’ve related a LOT of history, but i’ve only communicated a fraction of the knowledge that ann has to offer. my next post will related some of her insider knowledge on the current food scene at borough market and all the incredible edibles available to stuff in your mouth.  i highly recommend you go on her tour, or any of the other cool walks, if you’re ever here in london with some time to kill. it’s an amazing way to see the city while learning about all the sordid tales and hidden secrets of the intriguing and ever-changing metropolis that is london…

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3 thoughts on “a fascinating, gag-inducing yet hunger-stimulating food walk of london

  1. Elaine says:

    Wonderful stories, Mei.
    Ann is a great source of knowledge.

    Looks like you are having a wonderful time and I will be honored to have you take me around London town.

    Andy said he wished you did not use swear words or porn on your blogs….I didn’t find any, so no sweat….

    Irene returning from Cornell this week.

    Love Mom

  2. Ann Jones says:

    This is really great – I’m impressed by how closely you were listening! I’m glad you enjoyed our walk – may I quote you on the London Walks website?

    Best wishes


    • mei says:

      ann, of course! i very much enjoyed the walk. and i’m glad i spelled your name correctly:) thanks again for a lovely time!

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