London's fast food? It just keeps on getting better

A new exhibition in the City looks at the capital's dining habits. Did Londoners really believe that sperm whale secretions and lead oxide tasted great?
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Fast food, convenience food; the terms are pejorative, the assumption that "junk" food is a modern phenomenon. In fact, Londoners have been eating out and living on a diet of fast food for centuries, and some of the dishes our ancestors ate were of much more dubious nutritional value than the modern era's soft drinks, burgers and crisps. A new exhibition at the Museum of London shows what the metropolitan diet was like throughout the last 500 years.

Fast food, convenience food; the terms are pejorative, the assumption that "junk" food is a modern phenomenon. In fact, Londoners have been eating out and living on a diet of fast food for centuries, and some of the dishes our ancestors ate were of much more dubious nutritional value than the modern era's soft drinks, burgers and crisps. A new exhibition at the Museum of London shows what the metropolitan diet was like throughout the last 500 years.

The London Eats Out exhibition is well thought out and designed to be fun without being patronising, making it suitable for children as well as adults. One of the first exhibits is a piece of ambergris, an intestinal secretion of the sperm whale, a waxy lump which was used to perfume confectionery in the 16th century. If it's shock value you want, you can find it. We learn that coffee was often adulterated with red oxide of lead in the 19th century. This practice was exposed in The Lancet, which resulted in the 1875 Sale of Food and Drugs Act, the basis of current food safety laws.

The most striking parallel with modern London is that in the 16th century, as now, the eating habits of Londoners differed greatly among the haves and have-nots. Eating out in "cookshops" was commonplace for poor people who had no access to cooking facilities: stale bread, cheese and sometimes meats were the staples. Alehouses became popular in the 1500s, especially with the introduction of a new hop-based drink - beer - and street vendors sold cheap snacks such as oysters (once commonplace in the Thames estuary).

In contrast, the rich attended livery company banquets at which elaborate dishes such as turtle soup and dishes flavoured with exotic spices from the Far East were served. As residents of a major international port, Londoners have long had access to global ingredients. One of the exhibition's most fascinating exhibits is the banana skin which was recently excavated from a Tudor rubbish tip.

Complex spicing in English cookery - in London at least - goes back further than Tudor times, and the medieval diet appears to have been anything but plain. Spices were used to enhance flavour, not disguise the taste of bad meat as is widely supposed, although there was plenty of poor quality meat around in the days before environmental health officers.

In the 17th century, London's population increased dramatically and, as a result, inns, taverns, alehouses and cookshops prospered and multiplied. Bring Your Own isn't a new phenomenon; meals offered by inns and taverns included those made from customers' own ingredients which they had purchased elsewhere. Samuel Pepys in his diaries describes buying a lobster and meeting some friends, with some sturgeon, before going to the Sun Tavern to have them cooked. While taverns were safe for women, coffee houses were exclusively male preserves and offered British and international newspapers for the mercantile classes.

The current explosion of Seattle-style coffee houses might appear remarkable, but when you discover that the first coffee house opened in 1652 and 11 years later there were 83 in the City alone, it makes you wish you'd paid more attention to history and so profited from the recent coffee-shop boom across London. Cookshops continued to serve roast meats and pies to take away or eat in. The pies might contain minced ox tongue and beef suet flavoured with currants, cloves, mace, citrus juice, peel and wine.

The current mini-trade war between France and Britain is a reminder of previous food disputes. The French disparagingly refer to the English as rosbifs, a term which is centuries old. Wealthy 18th-century Londoners gorged themselves on beef, which was believed to give strength and was a symbol of England's prosperity. The French, in contrast, ate much more refined and delicate food, and were consequently ridiculed and portrayed as undernourished and effeminate. Yet French food became the height of fashion, helped by the huge influx of French people to London, fleeing the Revolution.

The French were the first of many waves of immigrants which have made London the best city in Europe for eating out. Although the exhibition's coverage of the contribution of immigrant communities is scant, it does reveal that London's first Indian restaurant, the Hindostanee Coffee-House, opened in 1809 and that by 1850 curry was a well-known and popular dish on many menus.

The first restaurant guide to London, the Epicure's Almanac, was published in 1815. Today we have scores of restaurant guides pointing diners to the finest cuisines London can offer. Sadly, though, we still live in a divided city: a significant underclass still has limited access to good nutritious meals, and the number one lunchtime meal for office workers is a sandwich eaten at the desk.

 

The writer is 'Time Out' magazine's Eat Out editor. London Eats Out, Museum of London, London Wall, EC2 (0171-600 3699). Open Mon-Sat 10am-5.30pm, Sun noon-5.30pm until 27 February. Admission £5 (£3 concs, 16 years and under free). Disabled access. Information on www. londoneatsout.co.uk or 0171-814 5777

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