"Off-screen, Michelle will be having a pyjama party this Christmas, with her sisters at home in Essex, where she was born and brought up - and spent two years working in a pie and mash shop (‘I never tried the eels,’ she says with a shudder)."
I knew had to hunt down some jellied eels ever since I learned about this classic East London working class dish. It looks scary, but what the hell, I was never a finicky eater.
Turns out finding a pie and eel shop was no simple matter. They may be common in Essex, but they aren’t ubiquitous in London. I started looking in the Docklands, that part of East London where jellied eels was a way of life for centuries. After walking around for hours I found not a single shop. Instead my hunt for the jellied eel turned into a lesson in Docklands history. Much of it is now gentrified with high value condos overlooking the old docks. The working class community mostly moved out when the ships stopped docking here and were replaced by African and Middle Eastern immigrants with their own cuisines, needless to say none of the new comers wanted anything to do with jellied eels. I had a nice kabob instead.
To make a long story short I found a few shops with the help of Google and picked an especially working class shop to have my pie and mash and jellied eel combo. The former would be familiar to the American palate, but the eel was quite challenging. The first bite I’m happy to report was not bad at all. Cold, salty, fishy, but not that intimidating. It was one thing to take a bite, but the prospect of having to eat it all quickly flagged my enthusiasm. If only the portions were smaller.
Just as I was giving up, the nice old lady who runs the place came to explain how Cockney old timers did it. You had to liberally apply vinegar and white pepper. This made all the difference as it greatly reduced the fishy taste and added complexity to the flavor. I ended up eating most of it, but was glad to turn my attention to the mash and pie.
Would I try the eels again? Probably not. In my opinion you can’t beat Japanese unadon when it comes to making a meal of eel. But I’m glad I had it. This is a real piece of history, one that’s fading fast. Looking around the pie shop with its decades old decor and peeling paint job, the only customers ordering eel other than me were in their seventies. A decade from now, jellied eels will probably only be found in overpriced restaurants that cater to curious tourists.