We were in London, searching for Hidden Kitchen stories, when we came upon an Eel Pie & Mash shop. It was full of old white marble tables, tile walls, pots of stewed and jellied eels, and piles of pies. These shops are now a dying breed, along with the eels they serve. Our search for the source of these vanishing eels led us to southwest London — to Eel Pie Island, a tiny slice of land with a flamboyant history that stretches from Henry the VIII to the Rolling Stones.
"Eel Pie. Think of an apple pie, with eels in it," says Dan van der Vat, author of the book Eel Pie Island. The pies, when you can find them these days, are round and mounded like apple pies, but they taste meaty and rich. Van der Vat has lived where it all began — on Eel Pie Island — for 30 years. It's the only inhabited island on the tidal Thames, 18 miles upriver from the center of London.
"The traditional eel [pie] is from the Londoners in the early 16th and 17th century, when the Thames was full of eels, and they were cheap," says Ruth Phillips, owner of Cockney's Pie and Mash Shop, one of the few remaining eel pie shops in London.
But the story of how eel pie became a staple of the London diet is legendary — if a bit slippery.
Legend has it that Henry VIII was being rowed up the Thames on the Royal Barge one day, and while passing the island, he was overcome by hunger, says van der Vat. "He said, 'Stop the barge and bring us a pie! Bring us an eel pie!' He sent a minion ashore to buy him one from Mistress Mayo's famous stall, acquired a taste for her pies, and then frequently indulged it." But, as van der Vat says, "the tale is highly suspicious. The hotel was built by the Mayo family, and Mistress Mayo ran it — but in 1830, not 1530."
Regardless of exactly how it began, for the next couple of centuries, Eel Pie Island became a retreat, known for its music and food, and for the clean air upriver from the polluted heart of London. Charles Dickens came by paddle steamer to visit the hotel in the 1830s, immortalizing it in his novel Nicholas Nickleby.
But eventually, people forgot about the island, and the fancy hotel went downhill.
Fast-forward to the mid-20th century, when Eel Pie Island was rediscovered by Arthur Chisnall, an untrained sociologist who wanted to set up a kind of living laboratory to study this new creature of leisure who cropped up after World War II: the teenager. He opened a club there and used music to attract young people.
Word spread, and soon the island and the club became a rock 'n' roll mecca. There was still some eel pie to be found, but times were changing, says actress Anjelica Huston, who grew up in London in the 1960s.
"Eel Pie Island was where they used to fish out the eels through the 1960s. The eels would be sold in the front of fishmonger shops — big, fat, some as thick as your arm," she says. Huston often made the pilgrimage to the island, although, she admits, eel pies were never on the menu for her.
Chisnall's club became a draw. The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, John Mayall, The Yardbirds, Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart, Cyril Davies and dozens more did some of the earliest gigs there, tromping over the bridge and carrying the "EELPILAND" passports issued like modern-day membership cards.
Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood called it a great melting pot. "You might bump into Mick Jagger in the bar, Pete Townshend, Ray Davies, Keith [Richards] or [David] Bowie." The Stones played 13 dates in the dance hall in 1963.
"The room would just be throbbing, Anjelica Huston tells us. "Hot, humid, full of cigarette smoke. People didn't take a lot of baths in those days in London. There wasn't a lot of shampooing going on. Music would blare. Those who weren't dancing were snogging. Kissing. Necking. It was a ritual thing."
After 11 years, Eelpiland was forced to shut down in 1967 for being a health hazard. At that time, 30,000 young Londoners were members of the club.
Today, Eel Pie Island is a lot quieter. Twenty or so artists and craftspeople maintain studios on the island, keeping the bohemian atmosphere of its past.
But the eels are largely gone, thanks to overfishing and pollution.
Just a handful of the old eel pie shops remain in London. Robert Cooke owns F. Cooke's at Broadway Market in London's East End. His grandfather opened the shop in 1900; his great-grandfather opened his shop in Brick Lane in 1862. "We've been selling pie and mash in the East End for 150 years. Eels were very cheap, caught from the canal or the Thames. Now we get a lot of eels from Holland. They're farmed and very expensive. The new generation wants chocolate, coffee and cheese, not eels."
Still, a generation of people remember both scenes. "Eel Pie Island. It's a very specific little place in space and time," says Huston. "A little point of liberation on the Thames, very alive — just like the eels."
If you're feeling adventurous, here's a traditional recipe for eel pie, likely dating back to the mid-1800s, from the book Eel Pie Island:
Richmond Eel Pie Recipe
Skin, draw and cleanse two good-sized Thames eels; trim off the fins and cut them up in pieces about 3 inches long, and put these in a stew pan with 2 ounces of butter, some chopped mushrooms, parsley and a very little shallot, nutmeg, pepper and salt, 2 glasses of sherry, 1 of Harvey sauce and barely enough water to cover the surface of the eels. Let them on the fire, and as soon as they come to a boil, let them be removed and the pieces of eels placed carefully in a pie dish. Add 2 ounces of butter, kneaded with 2 ounces of flour, to the sauce. And having stirred it on the fire to thicken, add the juice of a lemon and pour it over the pieces of eels in the pie dish. Place some hard yolks of eggs on the top. Cover with puff-paste. Ornament the top. Egg it over, bake for about an hour, and serve either hot or cold.