If you ask some experts, they’ll dismiss, sometimes contemptuously, the idea of there being a separate, discernible ‘London cuisine’. They’ll say that if it ever existed, it has long since disappeared under a tidal wave of imported cuisines from other European countries, the Indian Sub-Continent, and the Far East.
At face value, that is self-evidently correct. Stroll around the streets of the capital today and you won’t see very many restaurants proudly proclaiming that they serve ‘British Food’, and you’re even less likely to see any stating that they offer ‘London Cuisine’.
However, that doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story.
The French Invasion
London was, until the mid-20th century, one of the largest ports in the world. As a result, it was naturally the first port of call for ‘invading’ cuisines. Certainly in the 18th century, French cuisine rapidly became a very fashionable way to eat and it, with some British trimmings, became the choice of cuisine for the rich and powerful. It has rarely been in danger of losing that position since.
However, much of that passed ordinary Londoners by. Most locals had never even heard of Marie-Antoine Carême, and even if they had, they wouldn’t have been able to afford such gastronomic delights.
The Changing Face of Cuisine
Even by the middle of the 20th century, in spite of the arrival of many different cuisines in the capital, much of the working population continued to eat a recognisable and very unique style of London cuisine. Anyone who grew up in the centre of London during the 1950s and 1960s will remember that although there were French, Italian, Chinese and some Indian restaurants, they were heavily outnumbered (everywhere other than in the most affluent parts of West London) by typical ‘London restaurants’.
The latter would have served such delightfully named items as the Pie-n-Mash, Fish-n-chips, Faggots, Pease Pudding and Saveloys. Sunday tea-time (a sort of early dinner not the cream-tea variety) would have consisted of shellfish such as cockles, mussels, brown shrimps, whelks and, more rarely, jellied eels.
This was very much a distinctive London cuisine, with at least the shellfish component having roots back to Tudor times and before. However, as the 1960s wore on, this kind of authentic London cuisine went into full retreat. The austerity of the 1950s and earlier 1960s increasingly gave way to a London society, which, even at its base, had more disposable income.
People began to experiment more with foreign, takeaway and above all, convenience foods. Foreign food became fashionable and traditional London fare was seen as dated and undesirable. The result was that within a single generation, the traditional specialities had come close to vanishing in some cases, with, for example, vast numbers of younger Londoners refusing to eat shellfish or fish of any type.
A Surprising Refuge
The last bastions of traditional London-style food were the working class areas of the east and southeast of the capital. In the 1960s, many of these populations moved out into Kent and Essex taking their traditional food with them. So, as inner London became increasingly gentrified in the 1970s-90s, the traditional food of the area virtually vanished from the streets – however, it did transplant and survive, in a reduced way, in the counties mentioned above.
Paradoxically, traditional London cuisine is making something of a comeback and is today being re-imported from outlying areas. It’s becoming easier and easier to find on the streets of the capital again – if you know where to look!