Wednesday, April 10, 2013

In which Tom goes in search of Proustian pie and mash moments

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...

Snowscape with Pie-and-Mash shop, by Chris Poole from photos on Google maps.  Looks like the chap in the foreground has overindulged somewhat.

(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.)


Zhoen said...

The tongue wants what it wants.

Julia said...

I've never heard of this before, and I'm British! A green liquor...

Well, I hope that Tom enjoys his pie and mash and his Proustian moments.

For me, whenever I returned from France, it was fish and chips and a curry that I devoured with relish. Well, with salt and vinegar or mango chutney, but you know what I mean!

Roderick Robinson said...

Hey, here's a comment from RR which doesn't play on the ageist sympathy vote.

Re. Tom's pilgrimage. Ah that Plutarch (you know who I mean) and I don't have quick access to our time-warp machine, presently on loan to a mutual acquaintance who has expressed a desire to drink and smoke himself to death in a pre-gentrification version of The Clerkenwell Tavern. So that we were able to slip back to the mid-seventies Essex Street Market, just a block north of Bowling Green Lane where we worked, where an inside-out sort of café existed - ie, you could eat indoors and watch food preparation outside on the street. As you've guessed, the menu offered eels and nothing else and, if you were of a sadistic turn of mind, you could watch... no, I won't go into that. Green sauce was there in abundance even though I for one wasn't tempted. Green has always been my favourite colour but not this green - a sort of fluorescent Dayglo tint, often used by ladies who popularise their trade by leaving their cards handily attached to the windows of phone boxes.

Both Plutarch and I were (and are) what you might call venturesome eaters but I can't ever remember hearing the slightest whisper from him that he fancied trying the café's specialities.

But I would willingly have brought Tom a gallon of the sauce and would have recommended (in my interfering non-Essex way) that I suspected it went best with those floppy, deconstructed pies based on mutton and still available in Glasgow.

Lucy said...

Thanks. Turns out my sister's going to take him into London proper , to Greenwich and the Docklands light railway, where p&m will also be available, so a foray intothe hinterland of Essex will not be necessary!

Z - it's true, though not only and fairly minimally the tongue, it seems. We really do taste with our palates, or rather through the olfactory sense via the back of the mouth to the nose!

Julia - oh, I think it's a London and perhaps Essex thing, I've never had it. He's had the fish and chips already and is having the curry tonight, so he's making the most of his three days! We usually try to have those two things when we go back, but the p&m he's not had since childhood.

RR - oh, don't worry about trying for the ageist sympathy vote, it's one of the perks of getting older you might as well avail yourself of, I reckon, and intend to do so. Also, I do think that one of the privileges of not being young any more is that you shouldn't have to do any more than necessary that you don't want to. I think I might seriously try the stewed eels out of curiosity given the chance, though I once had jellied ones - in Ilfracombe in fact, not London - and didn't much like them. I also got a blob of the jelly on my jumper and it never came out. Love your description of the gruesome green!

Rouchswalwe said...

"mysterious and transformational element of marine-based umami" ... wow! That describes a multitude of dishes I remember fondly (some with a sense of intense yearning) from my time in Western Japan. The eel there was prepared differently than it was in Tokyo. It came with a glob of jelly-ish reddish-brown sauce that was an amazing match (I don't want to know what's in it).

Now about the green liquor ... I'd be willing to give it a go. There's a dish from my childhood I've been trying in vain to recreate here. It involves "grüne Soße," the famous green sauce of Frankfurt poured over Frankfurters, potatoes, hard-boiled egg slices and other items on the plate. Here's a photo and the theme song:

Avus said...

I guess that RR's "Guardian reader" (see his comment on my latest post) would feel much happier at Tony's than at "Miss Mollett's High Class Tea Shop"!
Enjoyed the post, Lucy.

Unknown said...

A similar green liquor accompanied the only dish in a restaurant in Seville. The dish consisted of small snails collected from local thistles boiled and consumed in the liquor, which was green. I went there twice and would greatly have preferred Tom's pie and mash but in those days experience was all and nostalgia had not entered the equation.

Mailizhen said...

I love this post. So funny and charming and lovely. No idea what the green liquor could be, but what a universal thing, to crave what we loved (and maybe didn't even realize we loved) in childhood. Thank you, Lucy.
- alison

marly youmans said...

Comments and post are both fascinating! I suppose it's rather like the way I can never get Southern green peanuts the way I had them as a child--dug hot from the ground, rinsed, boiled with salt out-of-doors in a great big boiler, and then eaten immediately.

I bet they sell that lurid and perhaps-eel-tinged sauce in bottles now, and your dear husband can pack a few away in his suitcase! Imagine that.

Pie and Mash Club: I want to belong to a club with that name...

Emily said...

Great post! Thanks for stopping by my blog, I've been catching up on all your posts - brilliant!

Unknown said...

Lovely to see you share a love of pie and mash. Here at Arments Pie & Mash shop we take pride in our pies, we have been serving customers since 1914. Why not pop in for a bite the next time you are in the Walworth area.