Tag Archives: London food

Created in London

London was where the nascent insurance industry started, the place that television flickered into life and the first place you could ‘spend a penny’ without an attendant demanding payment. London also has its share of first foodies, even if they have come from an expected quarter.

Pimm’s was invented to flog oysters

>Pimm’s is unofficially the beverage of Wimbledon. Over a quarter-of-a-million glasses of the stuff is drunk in those two weeks, but it was born as a clever marketing ploy to aid digestion. In the 1820s James Pimm ran a struggling oyster bar in the City. Trying to drum up custom, he came up with a refreshing, gin-based drink to wash the shellfish down. He called it ‘Pimm’s No. 1 cup’.

Scotch eggs from err…Piccadilly>

Though those north of the border might argue otherwise, but this strange combination was born in the Big Smoke. Fortnum & Masons claim it invented Scotch eggs as a portable snack for aristocratic clients who were about to rumble off in carriages to their country estates which in all probability was north of Hadrian’s Wall.

Bourbon biscuits not consumed by French aristocrats>

In the late 19th century, Bermondsey was known as ‘Biscuit Town’ due to its huge Peek Freans biscuit factory. They seemed to give their products interesting monikers: the Garibaldi, named after Italian general Giuseppe Garibaldi; the Marie, an Anglicised version of the galletas marias, and the bourbon.

Arnold Bennett’s omelette>

If you should be invited to an aristo country retreat, you are likely to be offered for breakfast, alongside the eggs Benedict and kedgeree, a rich and smoky fish omelette invented at the Savoy Hotel in 1929. Created for the writer Arnold Bennett, who was staying at the hotel while he finished a novel, loving it so much, he insisted Omelette Arnold Bennett was made for him wherever he went.

Champagne from London>

Don’t mention this to our Gallic cousins but in 1662 Christopher Merrett having moved from Oxford to London demonstrated at The Royal Society how to make champagne, a full 30 years before Dom Perignon started his famed tipple.

Peach Melba for a soprano>

The Savoy’s famous chef Auguste Escoffier was credited as creating this dessert for opera diva Dame Nellie Melba. The combination of peaches, raspberries, redcurrant jelly and vanilla ice cream were combined to protect her precious vocal cords before her appearances at Covent Garden.

Eastenders’ smoked salmon>

Once again, don’t be fooled by those Scots. Though most smoked salmon today comes from the bonnie hills of Scotland, the delicacy as we know it today was first made by immigrant Jewish families in the old East End of London. They used to ship the prized fish from Eastern Europe, smoking it, not because they loved the flavour, but simply because it preserved the fish in the days before refrigeration. The last surviving London smokehouse is Forman’s near Stratford, which you can still visit today.

Golden syrup from leftovers>

In the 1880s Abram Lyle owned a sugar factory on the Thames in East London. Lyle noticed that the refining process produced a syrup as a by-product. He started to sell it in wooden casks under the brand name ‘Goldie’, and before long he was supplying a tonne a week to grocers across London. The original factory still stands proudly on the banks of the Thames today, you can’t miss it there’s a giant version of the famous green-and-gold tin mounted on the wall.

Tea dispute in London and not Boston>

Twinings Teas at the point where Strand becomes Fleet Street claims to be London’s oldest shop, you enter this tiny shop, through a white portico guarded by two Chinese figures, one blue, the other yellow. Twinings and Jacksons produced a beverage that floated the British Empire – Earl Grey – a fragrant tea blend thought to have been created for Charles Grey, prime minister in the 1830s, who made it the most fashionable drink in London society. Both Twinings and Jacksons of Picadilly lay claim to have invented Earl Grey, but since Jacksons are now owned by Twinings, it could be said their disagreement is no more now than a storm in a teacup.

Just Desserts in London

Maids of Honour
A personal favourite of mine. Just opposite Kew Gardens is a rather quaint tea room selling these puff-pastry cakes containing a rich melange of almonds, cinnamon, butter and brandy named after a famous terrace in Richmond. This was built for the ladies-in-waiting to a former Princess of Wales, Caroline of Anspach, who lived at nearby Richmond Palace.

Those resourceful Romans are said to have stuck meat between two slices of bread to make a convenient way of eating on the move, presumably when conquering their European neighbours.

But the name sandwich is attributed to John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich. His family insist that he invented its creation to allow him to work on Admiralty papers, but those less charitable suggest that it was more likely he was rather bust at White’s gaming tables.

The current Earl of Sandwich has resurrected his ancestor’s invention and given his name to a chain of upmarket sandwich shops.

Don’t mention this to our Gallic cousins but in 1662 Christopher Merrett having moved from Oxford to London demonstrated at The Royal Society how to make champagne, a full 30 years before Dom Perignon started his famed tipple.

Peach Melba
The Savoy’s famous chef Auguste Escoffier was credited as creating this dessert for opera diva Dame Nellie Melba. The combination of peaches, raspberries, redcurrant jelly and vanilla ice-cream were combined to protect her precious vocal chords prior to her appearances at Covent Garden.

Chelsea Bun
On the corner of Pimlico Road and Lower Sloane Street, before the antique dealers arrived selling Georgian furniture, there stood a famous bun house royally patronised by Georges II, III and IV. Note the genuine light fluffy article containing raisins is always square.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 29th March 2013

Dark Satanic Mills

Food producers adulterating our food is a recurring problem and the practice has gone on for centuries.

When the Albion Flour Mills opened the traditional millers – who feared the factory would drive their wind and water mills out of business – had for a long time been spreading rumours that flour from the factory was adulterated with all manner of unpleasant substances.

[S]ince bread was the main diet of the poor millers were often portrayed as the greedy cheating baddie. At times of high wheat prices bakers and millers would be the target of rioters, often accused along with farmers and landowners of hoarding to jack up prices. Bread riots could involve the whole community, though they were often led by women, rioters would often seize bread and force bakers to it at a price they thought fair.

The Albion Mill was the first significant factory built in London. It was situated east side of Blackfriars Road on the approach to Blackfriars Bridge close by the Thames. Inside this modern wonder of its day, vast steam engines powered mill wheels which ground the flour on a huge scale.

Before the fire grinding 10 bushels of wheat per hour, by 20 pairs of 150 horsepower millstones, the Mills were the industrial wonder of the time, quickly becoming a fashionable sight of the London scene, they were regarded as the most powerful machines in the world. The trendy middle and upper classes had liked to drive to Blackfriars in their coaches and gawp at the new industrial age being born.

But in 1791 the factory dramatically burned to the ground in very suspicious circumstances.

The Mills stood in Blackfriars, an area together with neighbouring Southwark long notorious for its rebellious poor and for artisan and early working class political organisation. At one time the Thames bank at Lambeth was littered with windmills – eventually they were all put out of business by steam power. When the Albion opened London millers feared ruin.

It was hardly surprising that when mill was an inferno, they made their joy immediately apparent. A huge crowd gathered and made no effort to save the Mills, but stood around watching in grim satisfaction. Later in the day locals and mill workers danced around the smoking ruins, ballads of rejoicing were printed and sung on the spot and millers waved placards which read ‘Success to the mills of ALBION but no Albion Mills.’

After a soldier and a constable got into a row, a fight broke out leading to a mini-riot; but firemen turned their hoses on crowd thus the first recorded use of early water cannon. To further make their point, the millers labelled the factory Satanic.

William Blake lived a short distance from the factory and it is thought the event inspired the line ‘Dark Satanic mills’ in his poem And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time, later made famous as the hymn Jerusalem.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 19th March 2013

Half Baked

London has a proud history of baking biscuits. The rather ill-advised Old Weevil Bakery in Deptford made the famous hard tack biscuit popular with naval authorities as it would last indefinitely.

In the Voyager’s Gallery of the National Maritime Museum they have one example with the inscription ‘This biscuit was given – Miss Blacket at Berwick on Tuesday 13 April 1784’.

[H]ardtack proved unpopular with World War I soldiers, so much they took to affixing a stamp and posting them home. The British Postal Museum has an example and the Imperial War Museum has a Christmas card made from a hardtack biscuit.

If you should wish to bake yourself this biscuit which, it must be said, was detested by the armed forces:

Mix flour and water until you have a thick, gluey batter. Roll flat, cut out discs and prick a pattern on to the surface of each with a pin. Cook and cool five times until rock-hard and moistureless.

Now forgotten, the Pearl was once London’s most famous biscuit, it was Introduced in 1865 by Peek Freans in Bermondsey. Unlike the hardtack, it was the first recorded crumbly biscuit. You can buy a ‘Pearl’ from Fortnum and Mason, albeit chocolate covered.


To revive the Pearl which was similar to a modern Rich Tea biscuit:

Stir up white flour, sugar, butter, milk and salt. Spread the dough pancake thin (it will expand), cut out discs and don’t prick any holes on them. Cook for ten minutes.

Another recipe from Bermondsey’s Peek Freans factory was the Garibaldi in homage to the Italian who unified Italy. I suppose to placate some of the deposed nobility they also created the bourbon. Both of which are available today, which is much easier than following one of my recipes.

Penny Licks

John Hammond got it right, when faced with his imminent demise in Jurassic Park the entrepreneur played by Richard Attenborough, expecting to be eaten by dinosaurs – due to a power cut unlocking their cages – Hammond picks up a tub of melting ice cream and proceeds to eat the whole gallon tub.

This summertime treat, taken for granted now, was first sold in London at affordable prices by Carlo Gatti. Brought up in the Italian speaking region of Switzerland, after harsh beating at school he walked the 600 mile journey to Paris to join his father running a small business selling chestnuts.

[C]afés flourished in Paris at the time offering coffee and ice cream, but Gatti was ambitious and in 1847 at the age of 30 he arrived at Dover with his wife Marie. He settled into the Italian community in Holborn, the remnants of which can still be found at the western end of Clerkenwell Road.

He started selling chestnuts from a stall but by 1849 went into business with Battisa Bolla opening a café specialising in chocolate and ice cream – a treat previously reserved for the very wealthy. Soon business was booming he would go on to exhibit their chocolate machine at the Great Exhibition in 1851.

Hokey-Pokey-Seller The first of five shops was opened in Hungerford Market (about where Charing Cross Station now stands) selling penny licks – a penny’s worth of ice cream served in a shell. This take-away novelty proved so popular in summer, London’s streets were soon echoing to the cry Gelati, ecco un poco! (“ice cream, here’s a little!”) or O che poco! (“O how little!”), meaning it was cheap rather than insufficient in quantity, and led to the cry hokey-pokey! (“Penny a lump!”).

The term “hokey-pokey” soon became identified with poor-quality ice cream, however, as it was sometimes made of questionable ingredients under very unsanitary conditions, and it was not uncommon for consumers to become ill after eating it. The way it was served didn’t help either. When customers finished eating their ice cream from a penny lick, the glass “penny lickers” were returned to the vendor who simply gave them a brisk wipe with his ever present rag before refilling them for his next customers. It’s no wonder that in London, in 1899, a law was passed to ban the use of penny licks as they were believed to contribute to the spread of tuberculosis.

By 1862 Gatti had become the biggest importer of ice from Norway. He set up a fleet of delivery carts supplying ice to householders. He would go on to open many confectioners, cafés, restaurants and even the world’s largest billiards room. At  the time Gatti died in 1878 (not from eating his products) ice cream vendors peddling their treats from brightly painted carts could be found all over London.

Photo: Penny lick vendor with horse Nancy Oswald.
Photo: Edinburgh Penny lick vendor and more information on Italian entrepreneurs The Quilietti Family