Favourite Pie & Mash Shops (Part One)
I have grown so skinny these past months at the end of Winter – chasing stories around Spitalfields – that I decided to undertake a tour of my favourite Pie & Mash Shops in the company of Spitalfields Life contributing photographer Sarah Ainslie, in order to explore all the delights on offer and put some meat on my bones into the bargain.
Pie & Mash Shops have a special place in my affections because they are unique to East London and inextricably bound up with the cultural and historical identity of this place – becoming destinations where people enjoy pilgrimages to seek sustenance for body and soul, by paying homage to the spirit of the old East End incarnated in these tiled, steamy temples dedicated to the worship of hot pies. Let me admit, it is a creed I can subscribe to wholeheartedly.
Taking our cue from that golden orb in the sky, Sarah & I decided to commence in the East and work our way West across the territory, beginning with G. Kelly, established since 1937 at 526 Roman Rd. Here we had the privilege to be welcomed by the lovely Sue Venning – resplendent in her white uniform – the proprietor who greets everyone universally with a brisk yet cheery “Yes, Love?” – commonly reciprocated by “Hello, Gorgeous.” It was a delight to walk into this sympathetic, clean and bright interior, adorned with daffodils and lined with marble and tiles, gleaming under the globe lamps.
“My Aunt Theresa on my father’s side married George Kelly who opened this in 1937,” explained Sue, introducing the intricate web of relations that connect this establishment to the two other Pie & Mash Shops by the name of Kelly, all independently run today by increasingly distant relatives as the generations pass by. “Samuel Robert Kelly opened up originally in Bethnal Green in 1915 – he had three sons, Samuel who took over in Bethnal Green, Joe who opened in Bonner St and George who came here to the Roman Rd. My father Bill (George Kelly’s brother-in-law) ran this with my mother Bea, until he died in 1969, and then I took over from her in 1990.” she outlined with a relaxed smile and a practised efficiency that left me reeling.
Arriving with the first customers of the day, I was fascinated to discover that my fellow diners were from Suffolk and Kent, and had gone out of their way to be there. In particular, the couple from East Anglia were up to visit their nan who lived nearby, and Sue confirmed that many of her customers were those who had once moved out of the East End, for whom a return visit to her Pie & Mash Shop was an opportunity to revisit a taste of home. Yet Sue retains a solid constituency in the Roman Rd. “People know each other here,” she confirmed fondly, “You know their orders when they come in, they don’t need to ask.”
We hit the rush at G. Kelly, 414 Bethnal Green Rd, (connected only genealogically to G. Kelly, Roman Rd) where Matt Kelly, proprietor for the last fifteen years, baker and third generation pie man, had his work cut out in the kitchen to meet the lunchtime demand for pie and mash and liquor at £2.65. Diners here eat off elegant cast iron tables beneath framed portraits of local boxing heroes of yesteryear and everyone is at home in one of this neighbourhood’s cosiest destinations.
At the head of the lunch queue was Mrs Julia Richards. “I’m going to be ninety-eight,” she bragged with a winsome grin, the picture of exuberance and vitality as she carried off her plate of pie and mash hungrily to her favourite corner table, pursued by her sprightly seventy-year-old daughter Patricia – both superlative living exemplars for the sustaining qualities of traditional East End meat pies. “I’ve been coming here over fifty years,” revealed Patricia proudly. “I’ve been coming here since before it opened!” teased Julia, her eyes shining with excitement as she cut into her steaming meat pie.“They used to have live eels outside in a bucket,” she continued, enraptured by memory, “And you could pick which one you wanted to eat.” We left them absorbed in their pies, the very epitome of human contentment, beneath a hand-lettered advertising placard, proclaiming “Kelly for Jelly.”
Up at F.Cooke in Broadway Market, once we had emptied our plates of some outstandingly delicious pies, Sarah & I enjoyed a quiet after-lunch cup of tea with the genial Robert Cooke - “Cooke by name cook by nature” – whose great-grandfather Robert Cooke opened a Pie & Mash Shop at the corner of Brick Lane and Sclater St in 1862. “My father taught me how to make pies and his father taught him. We haven’t changed the ingredients and they are made fresh every day,” explained Robert plainly, a fourth generation born-piemaker sitting proudly in his immaculately preserved cafe, that offers the rare chance to savour the food of more than century ago.
“My grandfather Robert opened this shop in 1900, then he left to open another in the Kingsland Rd, Dalston in 1910 and Aunty May ran this one until 1940, when they shut it after a doodlebug hit the canal bridge.” he recounted. “My mother Mary came over from Ireland in 1934 and worked with my grandfather in Dalston, alongside my father Robert and Uncle Fred. And after they got married in 1947, my grandfather said to my parents, ‘Here’s the keys, open it up,’ and they returned here to Broadway Market, where I was born in 1948.”
It was a tale as satisfying in its completeness as eating a pie, emphasising how this particular cuisine and these glorious shops are interwoven with the family histories of those who have run them and eaten at them for generations. Yet beyond the rich poetry of its cultural origin, this is good-value wholesome food for everyone, freshly cooked without additives, and meat pies, vegetable pies, fruit pies and jellied eels comprise a menu to suit all tastes. Reluctantly, after three Pie & Mash Shops in one day, Sarah & I were finished – but even as we succumbed to the somnolence induced by our intake of pies, we took consolation in dreamy thoughts of all those pleasures that await us in the other Pie & Mash Shops of the East End, yet to come.
This is Dean Cecil who bakes the pies at G.Kelly in the Roman Rd.
Sue Venning at G.Kelly, Roman Rd – her Aunt Theresa, who married George Kelly, is the woman in the dark coat, pictured in the black and white photo, standing outside the shop in 1937.
Liquor (Parsley sauce) and mash at G.Kelly
G.Kelly, 526 Roman Rd.
At G.Kelly, Bethnal Green
The prizefighters of yesteryear fondly remembered in the Pie & Mash Shop in Bethnal Green.
Julia Richards, nearly ninety-eight - “They used to have live eels outside and you could pick your own.”
Regulars, Julia Richards and her sprightly daughter Patricia Wootton aged seventy, at the favoured corner table at G.Kelly, Bethnal Green.
G.Kelly, 414 Bethnal Green Rd
Jellied Eels at F.Cooke
Robert Cooke under the clock commissioned by his grandfather Robert Cooke from a clockmaker in Hackney in 1911.
Robert Cooke, fourth generation pie-maker -”Cooke by name, cook by nature.”
Pat with a tray of pies at Broadway Market
F.Cooke, 9 Broadway Market, since 1900.
Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie