Jellied Eels – A Cockney Specialty from the East End:
A recent lunch stop at the Fish House in the town of Ludlow exposed me to jellied eels, a traditional English food that was once very popular.
Ray, a fellow traveller, was very excited to see jellied eels being offered at the Fish House. He orders a portion and slurps away at the jellied eels which he obviously enjoys. According to Ray, he and his family loved this traditional English dish which he hasn’t had since leaving England.
Jellied eels, as I now understand, was a Cockney specialty which was famous in London during Victorian times. The eels thrived in the Thames and was a cheap and readily available source of nutritious food for Londoners and soon became a staple for London’s poor. Street vendors used to sell jellied eels from wooden barrows, although it was more usual to find them in ‘pie and mash’ shops. Eel Pie & Mash Houses were a common food establishment on the London scene and there used to be hundreds of them around.
Recipe for Jellied Eel
A typical recipe for jellied eels involves chopping the eels into rounds and boiling them in water, vinegar with nutmeg and spices to make a fish stock, before being allowed to cool. The eel is a naturally gelatinous fish so in the cooking process proteins, like collagen, are released into the liquid which solidifies on cooling to form a jelly. Gelatin may be added in order to help this process.
Neither Ray’s wife or us were keen to taste his jellied eels and it seems that this once very traditional English food is either loved or loathed by the English these day. From for the few remaining jellied eel stalls in London, it would seem that this is no longer a popular food. I think it might be the gelatinous texture or presentation that puts people off today as eel dishes are still popular outside of the UK. I see the lunchtime office crowd buying eel sushi. The French have aspic d’anguille, which is similar to jellied eels and the Italians have anguilla. In Spain, baby eels sauteed in olive oil and chili pepper is very popular and angulas is now an expensive dish.
If you’re in East End London and wanting to sample some of this traditional English food, Tubby Isaacs’s family has been selling eels on Goulston Street, near Petticoat Lane, since 1919. For the over 90 years Tubby Isaacs have been purveyors of the finest quality jellied eels so you’ll be sampling jellied eels from a world famous shop.Your Turn: Do you have any advice you would like to share? What tips would you like to add? Please comment below.