In the 1700s, the Thames River in London was replete with eels. Surprisingly easy to catch, these slippery creatures were free for the grabbing, nutritious, and tasty. Nets were set upriver, and the bountiful harvests quickly became a dietary staple for London’s poor.
On top of being cheap, they were easy to prepare. The simplest method common at that time was to chop the eel into slices or chunks and boil in stock spiced with vinegar, salt and pepper, onion, and any other desired (and available) spices or herbs. Once cooked, the mixture was allowed to cool completely until the eel’s proteins solidified the liquid into a savory jelly. Jellied eels were typically eaten cold.
The texture of the eel is reported to be very soft, which can be off-putting, but the taste is said to be mild, slightly salty, and not at all “fishy”. I can’t confirm this personally, so let me know if you have eaten them!
Londoners swiftly grew to love the strange dish with a passion. Street vendors saw the potential and began selling jellied eels along with the already popular fare of small mince-meat pies and mashed potatoes. This was followed by shops selling “pie-and-mash” with jellied eels served hot, and offering assorted garnishes such as hot chili vinegar and spicy sauces.
At the height of their popularity, these specialty shops were as plentiful as Starbucks. One on every corner with street venders in between! London’s oldest existing pie, mash, and jellied eel shop is M. Manze, which opened on Tower Bridge Road in 1891. It was founded by Michele Manze, whose family moved to London from southern Italy in 1878, and began selling pies after dabbling less successfully in ice-cream. For Manze, this Tower Bridge site was the first of a mini pie empire. He opened a second shop on nearby Southwark Park Road in 1908, followed by two more in Poplar and yet another in Peckham in 1927. Three were either destroyed or closed during the war but the original, his Peckham outlet, and a third on Sutton High Street remain open today.
LINKS FROM THE COLLAGE ABOVE FOR MORE HISTORY AND RECIPES:
Eat Your World: Jellied Eels
British Food: Preparing, Sourcing, and Cooking Eels
Jellied Eels: History, Recipes, & Videos