Tom has gone to Essex for his annual MOT of ears and eyes, which means entrusting him to the good offices of my sister. He's there for really not much more than a couple of days, but will have one whole day free, for which he has been granted an outing of his choice, within the means of transport available, ie accessible by train, bus or within my sister's comfortable driving range. He was drawn to Maldon, but it really was rather a long way - Essex is surprisingly vast - and the arterial roads through and around Chelmsford turned out to be too daunting a prospect. The attractions of Maldon were initially sailing barges and general Thames Estuary olden-times wateriness, but in fact had become focussed on the existence of a pie-and-mash shop in the town.
One of Tom's great yearnings, a kind of gastronomic Holy Grail for him, has been to recreate the experience of pie-and-mash as he remembers it from his London East-end childhood. Not so much the pie or even the mash, in fact, but the weird green green sauce that went with it, known as liquor.
You would think this would be fairly easy, making a thin kind of velouté (I am aware that using a fancy French culinary term here might be amusingly inappropriate, but we are speaking of processes) seasoned with parsley, white pepper and vinegar, but it isn't. I have been led to wonder if perhaps at some point some broth from the stewing or jellification of eels which were the other offerings of the pie-and-mash establishments might have found its way into this concoction, providing a similar mysterious and transformational element of marine-based umami to that provided by fish sauce in Thai cooking. liquamen in Roman dishes, anchovies in ... whatever I feel like sneaking them into. Or perhaps the secret ingredient is nostalgia, which might prove more elusive. Quite why Tom actually wants to be transported back to his childhood, which is generally concluded to have been fairly unremittingly rubbish, is hard to say, but these things are not susceptible to explanation.
Anyway, having set his heart on said pie-and-mash, we set about researching where it might be procured nearer to my sister's home, and it turns out to have become a kind of shabby chic, retro-trendy thing, and the shops which offer it have undergone quite a renaissance, cropping up all over the place and acquiring a new and younger clientèle This is partly because of course, as with Athens in the Acts, all the Londoners and the strangers which were there spend their time in nothing else but to either to tell, hear - or eat - of some new thing, which sometimes will inevitably be some old thing come round again. And partly, it seems, it's because David Beckham eats pie-and-mash. Whenever he's home from foreign parts, he likes nothing more than to head for none other than Tony's Pie and Mash Shop in Waltham Abbey, which, it turns out, is only a few stops down the train line from where my sister lives.
When we did the little-yellow-man street view thing on Google maps, this is what we saw:
people rushing in droves through the door to get to the pies (don't quite know why there are two As in the word 'mash' on the signboard, something to do with how the camera works). I was concerned; what if they couldn't get a table? Where we come from now you book to eat in popular places. I telephoned, and think I probably got Tony himself. My husband is coming all the way from France with a longing for pie-and-mash and a very short time to satisfy it, should we reserve a table to make sure? Nope, I was assured in a brisk estuary accent, he can just come in and sit right down...
Anyway, I just hope it all works out all right, or at least Tom isn't too disappointed or my sister too traumatised by the experience. I just read a write up of the eatery on Chilli Marmalade, a very bright and unpretentious London-based food blog, which read
What’s liquor? I hear you ask… Well. Words fail me. Think about what would happen if you dumped a whole lot of dried parsley and white pepper into a bucket of wallpaper glue, added vinegar, and stirred.
Oh dear. She did add though, that in spite of this she still finished most of it, and that it was 'weirdly moreish'.
I wonder if it's better sometimes to leave lost time unsearched for...
(There's more information at the Pie and Mash Club website, including an extensive directory with links to write-ups of visits to the shops. The Club exists not so much to provide gourmet evaluations as to see which of its members can eat the most, and the accounts and descriptions are often very funny indeed. I never knew this thriving sub-culture even existed.)