Hard liquor at lunchtime

There used to be a pie and mash shop around the corner from me, but it's long gone. I don't know the exact figures, but there can only be two score of these venerable establishments left in London - if that. Along with fish and chip shops, pie and mash (or, to be strictly accurate, pie, mash and eel) shops are the crucible of modern British fast food. I'm not sure what the exact origins of this cuisine are, but they would seem to be indigenous - after all, who but the cockneys would dream up such an excruciating meal deal?

The serving woman behind the counter of the shop picks up a plate as if it were a plasterer's board, then smears a blob of white mash on to the side; next comes a ladleful of liquor, the virulent green sauce made with parsley and the juice left over from cooking the eels; next come the eels themselves - stewed or, double-puke, jellied - or, alternatively, a meat pie; these are made with cold water pastry and look, as well as taste, as if a fat pearly king has been sitting on them.

When I was a young trendy (which is what hipsters were called in my day), I'd try to eat in a pie and mash shop from time to time - it seemed an obvious way for a slumming bourgeois to connect with the pays bas of the Great Wen. But every time, I concluded that if London was a swelling bubo, then liquor had to be its pus - it looked like infective matter on the plate. As for the eels, well, a smoked eel can be a fine and subtle thing, but stewed they just seemed stinky, fishy and muddy all at once. Jellied eels were beyond yuck, in the seventh circle of gustatory hell reserved for stuff like tripe and McDonald's burger buns.

Life of pie

So it had been at least 20 years since I'd last been in a pie and mash shop when I sauntered across sarf London the other day to the Borough, where my friend Jon lives in a 17th-century house across the road from Manze's, which styles itself "the original pie and mash shop". It's a fair claim, because the Manze's premises on Tower Bridge Road are the oldest to have been continuously trafficking in the hated liquor - since 1891. The interior of the shop is original as well, marble-topped counter and tables, wooden and wrought-iron bench seats, white-and-brown tiled walls.

I dunno, perhaps it's an age thing, but I'd also been spending a fair amount of time scrutinising the magnificent English Heritage book Lost London: 1870-1945 (which erroneously, as it's still standing, has a photo of Jon's house on page 259).

It helped, too, that I'd walked over through the old East Street Market, which continues to flog stuff off the back of traditional costers' carts. Still, whatever the genesis, on arriving at Manze's I felt as if I had slipped through some gap in time and that stewed eel, pie, liquor and mash was exactly what I wanted to eat.

Taken eel

Jon was rather more dubious. He granted that at weekends there was a long queue around the block, but these were "tourists, mostly - hardly repeat customers". Besides, Jon's wife, who had been living opposite Manze's since the 1960s, could remember them chucking the unused live eels away in the gutters. I took his remarks with considerable seasoning, because he was kitted out in 1970s shades and a leather jacket, and so appeared utterly anachronistic.

Inside I ordered the full Monty, while Jon nixed the pie but joined me in the stewed eels, mash and the feared liquor. The bench seats were woefully narrow for all but Jack London's people of the abyss, but the food was far from abysmal. As I slurped up my liquor, picked eel bones out of my teeth and swigged on a tea so strong you could've cantered a rat across it, I wondered at my disgust. This was strong, wholesome, well-balanced fare - just what a 19th-century manual worker such as myself needed to keep him on his pins. All around us other throwbacks were chucking down their food, while from the shelf behind the counter stared the photos of Victoria Beckham, Jim "Nick-Nick" Davidson, Danny Baker and other members of the chavistocracy.

Still, I'm not claiming that pie and mash shops are to everyone's taste, nor that they constitute that real a meal. I mean, not everyone wants to prepare for a quick lunch with considerable amounts of research and a long urban walk.

But take it from me, if you make the effort it's worth it - not least for the bill, which at under a tenner for the two of us was as antediluvian as the rest of the experience. l

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 10 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Here comes the squeeze