Fred Cooke, owner of one of London's few remaining eel, pie and mash restaurants, is one of a dying urban breed.
Not that he looks anything else other than vibrantly alive. Standing at the end of his long, polished serving counter, wearing bovver boots, baggy white trousers and Donald Duck braces, he comes on more like an extra from a Chas and Dave video than the godfather of the East End eel trade.
"Twenty years ago there would have been queues down the street outside this shop," he says, Cockney accent strong, gazing mournfully at the few elderly customers having lunch. Outside the younger generation strides by, heading straight for Burger King.
"I remember as a nipper you'd be eating mash and liquor before you could feed yourself," Fred says, swinging open the gate to Memory Lane. "But I must have been about 17 before I had eels for the first time. Lovely they were."
His brother Chris bustles through to the kitchen. He shouts that he prefers them with chilli vinegar: "It's nothing without that. Bosh! Gives it a bit of oomph."
Oomph notwithstanding, the Cooke restaurant, in Dalston, east London, is one of fewer than 20 original eel, pie and mash properties still standing.The main dining room is lined with the porcelain tiles fitted for its opening in 1910. The rear dining area is lit by ornate stained-glass skylights, decor which has won it the nickname of the Buckingham Palace of the eel shops. The regulars love it. Emmy Jupp, 87, a fan for more than 40 years, sits by the window in her favourite seat.
"It's smashing this place. I don't go nowhere else. Never." She tucks into her plate of mash. She can remember jostling with scores of other diners in the heyday of eel, pie and mash shops during the late 1940s. Then there were more than 200 London restaurants serving eels coated in the famous parsley sauce "liquor". "It was cheap, healthy food for those who didn't have much in life," she says. "They looked after us, these shops did."
Eels as a staple diet date back to the mid-19th century when the historian Henry Mayhew watched the "chilled labourers and others who regale themselves on ... pea soup and hot eels." In his book London Labour and the London Poor he notes: "Even the very poorest, who have only a halfpenny to spend as well as those with better means, resort to the stylish stalls in preference to the others."
The real Chas and Dave have even celebrated eels and mash in a Cockney singalong. "I can't remember what we wrote now," says Chas, "but it was probably about Fred's place. I'm always in there. I can't do without my pie and mash." Joe Brown is another famous regular, as is Barbara Windsor. Even the Kray twins paid several visits. Their hankering for this Cockney soul food bolstered its image as a quintessentially urban phenomenon unique to working-class London.
"It's always been a very urban food, very healthy, very cheap. Food for the poor really, so people shun it," says Chris Clunn, a photographer who spent five years documenting the eel shops. "This is my past, my culture. I had my first bowl of mash and liquor when I was one year old."
His seven-year-old daughter Scarlet is one of the few youngsters who frequents the shops now. Clunn says he still has trouble luring her away from the golden arches of McDonald's.
"Fast food has taken a lot of custom away from these places," Clunn says, poised over his third meat pie. "Whereas now people go for a kebab after a skinful, back in the Fifties everyone went for pie and mash."
Today queues are rare and staff serve roughly half the numbers of customers. The publicnow consider it little more than a quaint Cockney novelty. The 20 remaining London shops are culinary outposts valiantly defending a 150-year-old tradition.
Two more shops have closed within the past 18 months. The survivors huddle, predominantly, in the East End. It's been a long decline, perhaps going as far back as the lateFifties when rent rises forced industry out to cheaper land in the Home Counties, taking with it the workers who relied on the eel restaurants.
Since then the three families that controlled the eel empire - the Cookes, the Manzes and the Kellys - have all felt the pinch. Robert Kelly's shop in Bethnal Green takes pounds 100,000 a year, almost one-third less, relatively, than when his grandfather ran it 40 years ago.
A world shortage of eels and the rapid expansion of fast-food chains are doing little to halt the decline. Fred Cooke sometimes returns from dawn visits to Billingsgate fish market with empty nets, so he keeps eels in tanks behind the kitchens to see him through the lean periods.
Micky Jenrick, who started in the eel trade at 15 and has built up a small empire in one corner of the main fish hall at Billingsgate, is also concerned. "About 12 years ago we were doing 1,500 51b bowls of chopped eels a week. Now we're lucky if we do 1,000."
And then there's cost. Last Tuesday at Billingsgate prices were steep: pounds 3.25 for 1lb of Hungarian eels straight off the tanker, 50p dearer than the wild Scottish salmon lying on a neighbouring stall. "These prices are bloody mad," says Micky. "But what can you do?"
"Nothing," Fred answers. "And people prefer burgers or chips. It's as simple as that. There's such a choice out there that they overlook us. It's a shame. They don't know what they're missing." True. Far from reeking of old boots as manythink, eels are more like a superior plaice. Tasty.
Or not. Fleur Charles, a teenager from Kensington, west London, is perfectly happy to forgo the eel experience. "Eat that!" she shrieks. "No chance. They are all slimy like snakes or worms. Give me chips instead."
Most eel, pie and mash shops close for the day after lunch for lack of trade. All rely heavily on their regulars. As Chris Clunn puts it, "They are surviving rather than thriving."
And with sons and daughters reluctant to take over the family business, he wonders how long these relics of Cockney cuisine will remain: "A lot of them are thinking about more exciting things, like the Stock Exchange and other big City jobs. Times change."
But there is hope. A handful of City office workers have found eels to be a cheap alternative to the canteen. Geoff Poole (a descendant of the Manzes eel empire) of M Manzes, Bermondsey, says despite the overall decline, his sales are up. And Fred Cooke is surfing the success of the lottery: "We go potty on a Saturday night with people buying grub to take home to watch it."
Amid the closures, a surprise. A new shop, Cockney's, opened in, of all places, west London six weeks ago, flaunting a striking black and gold sign and lots of attitude. It wouldn't stand out East of the city, but here on the trendy Portobello Road, it's drawing an unexpected clientele. "Most of the time I get loads of yuppies," says the owner, Ruth Phillips. "They're choosing something new. You never know, with my recipes this could be the start of the return of the eel."
Chris Clunn's photographs are currently on display at the Museum of London.
Fred and Chris's Eel Stew
1lb (450g) fresh eel, cleaned and cut in 1in (2.5cm) pieces
1 bunch spring onions, cut in 1/2 in (1cm) pieces
1 dozen black and 1 dozen white peppercorns
1/2 lb (225g) frozen peas
14 tablespoons chopped parsley, salt
1 tablespoon flour
Put the spring onions in a saucepan, add 450ml/3/4 pint water and the peppercorns and simmer for 10 mins. Add eels, bring back to the boil, simmer for another 10 mins, with the lid on. Add peas, parsley and a sprinkling of salt. Mix the flour to a thin, smooth paste with a little water in a cup and stir it into the eel stew.
Stir gently until it bubbles again, turn off the heat, cover the pan and leave for a few minutes - enough to cook the flour and the peas, which should still be firm and bright green. Serve with mash.
Liquor (parsley sauce) (courtesy of Museum of London book `Eels, Pie and Mash')
1/2 oz (10g) butter
loz (25g) flour
1/3 pint (425ml) water, milk or fish stock
2 level tablespoons chopped parsley
Melt the butter in a pan and stir in flour. Remove from heat and gradually stir in the liquid. Add the chopped parsley. Return to the heat and bring back to the boil, stirring all the time. Serve with pies, mash and/or eels.
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies