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Spitalfields on a Plate

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Foodie tourism is big business in these culinarily cognizant times. Paris just ain’t Paris without a mouthful of ornate macarons. What would a Highlands holiday be without haggis, neeps and tatties? A ramble down La Ramblas without a sticky churro to chew on? The Barcelonés wouldn’t hear of it. But what of the cuisine of our own fair capital? As arguably Europe’s most cosmopolitan city, finding a true flavour of London could prove a little beguiling for the millions of hungry tourists who visit the Big Smoke every year. Well, help is now at hand courtesy of Eating London Food Tour.

Converging at Old Spitalfields Market, with the Saturday morning bargain-hunters already swarming the stalls, our group of 7 eager foodies (all from across the pond) are met by smiley Aussie guide, Nicole.

Our gastronomic odyssey began at St John Bread and Wine with, what we’re audaciously promised, is “the best bacon sandwich in London”. Opened by in 2009, this sister restaurant to the original Clerkenwell branch is a local institution. Founder Fergus Henderson espouses a philosophy of ‘nose to tail eating’. No part of the pig goes to waste (“everything but the oink”). I have to admit, the sandwich delivers – sweet, ever-so-slightly crispy bacon, homemade brown sauce, and the freshly-baked bread – enough said.

Spitalfields has had an eclectic past to say the least. One-time refuge of French Huguenots, Jews from Eastern Europe, Irish weavers, and of course, immigrants from south Asia, particularly Bangladesh. The demise of the wholesale fruit and veg market in 1991 paved the way for the latest crop of emigres, the hipsters – evidenced by the abundance of eye-catching street art that adorns the route to our next stop. Past the Ten Bells pub and the imposing Hawksmoor-designed Christ Church, we make our way down Brushfield Street to The English Restaurant – an atmospheric old dining room, parts of which date to the late 17th century. The wood panelling and pews were actually salvaged from Hawksmoor’s church, while the winding staircase was purloined from the Savoy Theatre. The banana bread and butter pudding with rum custard we get to eat here  is the perfect winter warmer. It’s rich but not sickly, and the booze gives it a welcome punch, offset nicely by the fragrant hint of vanilla.

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Next stop, artisan cheese shop Androuet. Master cheesemonger Alex (along with brother Leo) boast some of the finest cheeses this side of the Seine. While 30% of the cheeses are British, the rest hail from Alex’s native France. Matured to perfection in the cellar beneath the shop, we are treated to a sample of some of show-stopping English varieties: the Waterloo (light & subtle), the Cornish Yarl (nutty); the Bishops Stilton with caramelised walnut – a resounding winner.

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It’s noon now (aka: pub opening time) so what better way to celebrate than with a visit to proper East End boozer, the Pride of Spitalfields. We sample a thimble-full of the recently-revived Truman Brewery’s newest ale – a piquant example of the East End’s ability to reinvent itself.

As we dodge the crowds and make our way up to Brick Lane’s northern end, the intense aroma of exotic spices yields to the comforting smell of freshly-baked bread, or more specifically, bagels. As any bleary-eyed raver who has staggered down this way in the wee small hours can testify, the Brick Lane Beigeil Bake is legendary. Run by the venerable Mr Sammy, it’s been churning out these delicious doughy treats since 1977, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Coppers, cabbies, tramps and traders, Mr Sammy has seen them all in here. “They only come out at night… The good, the bad, and the ugly” as he calls them. As Nicole talks us through the history of the Jewish diaspora in the East End, we tuck into the famous salt-beef bagel. With generous slatherings of tangy mustard and crunchy gherkins, there’s history writ large with every salty mouthful.

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Our final stop takes us to swanky Pizza East. With cocktail bar Concrete downstairs and über trendy Shoreditch House next door, Pizza East is now one of Shoreditch’s hippest dining haunts. Once the famous Tea nightclub, the glitzy interior (all exposed brickwork and rococo lighting) is a fitting setting for our final dish – salted chocolate caramel tart, a deliciously indulgent dessert, served with an elegant quenelle of vanilla clotted cream, is quite literally the icing on the cake.

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While this mightn’t be one for the Londoners, the tourists loved it. Nicole had them (pun alert*) eating out of the palm of her hand with this pleasing blend of history and gluttony.

It would have been nice for my Yankee companions to savour a taste of authentic Cockney grub, such as the East End’s legendary pie & mash shops or a jaunt down Tubby Issacs (now sadly closed)? God only knows what they would have made of jellied eels or the offer of “extra liquor”.

And while it’s pretty high on calorific content (we also squeezed in a bite at Poppies Fish & Chips and a lamb pasanda at Aladin), the portions are manageable and the walking in between helps to shift some of the stodge.

Admittedly, this won’t be to everyone’s taste. While Londoners and even visitors from other parts of the UK might scoff at the idea of fish & chips, curry, or a pint in a pub, the experience is a real novelty for the tourists. Moreover, it makes you appreciate the everyday for it’s history. Did you know ‘our’ national dish (fish and chips) was brought here by the Portuguese and Belgians respectively? Think about that next time you pop in to your humble local chippy? Now to get a salad…

Eating London Food Tours run daily at 10am Monday – Saturday. Contact info@eatinglondontours.co.uk for availability. 

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