Eating Europe’s East End London Tour was one of the best food tours I’ve been on: smoothly organised, varied in its cuisine offerings, fascinating and informative, with a good balance of walking and eating. If you’re looking to decode London’s complexity, this is a great place to start – and even the grey dreary skies and drizzle didn’t hold us back and actually felt like it completed the authentic Londoner experience.
Our tour guide Nicole – coincidentally hailing from Melbourne – is actually Eating Europe’s longest serving employee, and has been running this tour for six years. The experience shows: the tour was impeccably organised; our tables and food were waiting for us as soon as we got there so there was no delay while waiting to find a seat or waiting for our guides to pay or order the food and the entire tour felt like a well-oiled machine. Given how popular some of these places are, it’s worth going just to get that VIP treatment.
Located in a building that once housed a bank, St Johns was started by Fergus Henderson, who is noted for his ‘nose to tail eating’ and advocacy of eating offal and all parts of the animal. The restaurant retains a bit of that formal vibe, full of white painted walls and dark wooden furniture. There’s no music so diners can focus on the food and the menu changes every day depending on the produce. We were here to try the best bacon sandwich in London: puffy grilled white bread and butter sandwiching a slice of bacon from Gloucestershire pigs in England and topped with ‘secret recipe’ ketchup that incorporates pureed apple. The bacon was quite lean but I don’t know if I could taste anything particularly special its flavours beyond the usual salty, meaty umami.
The English Breakfast
Located in what used to be an old nut factory, the English Breakfast’s building hides an incredible store of history, including a Roman column that was found in its foundation and its original ceiling beams date back to 1670. Refurbished by owner Peter 25 years ago when East End was still a seedy area and not the hip place it is today, the French pine wood interior is entirely recycled from the old church down the road. Even the writing the counter was hand-lettered by a 5th generation scriptwriter.
The bread and butter pudding was originally a way for the poor to make stale bread edible but, thankfully, it’s now a fragrant confection of crispy, slightly caramelised brioche up top, with bouncy bread and sultanas below, soaked in custard. Warm, not too sweet with just the right touch of creaminess and using real vanilla beans, it was definitely one of the highlights, especially on a cold rainy morning.
It was time for a wander around the East End neighbourhood, where our guides pointed out things like Jack the Ripper’s haunting grounds, an old Jewish soup kitchen and a night refuge. We looked down Artillery Lane, apparently King Henry VIII’s favourite archery spot, turned slum area in the 1970s and now full of quaint boutiques, and also featured bollards were made from old cannons.
We were then to circle back to the Spitalfields Market, which was London’s first fruit and vegetable wholesale market under royal charter in 1687. It’s now a huge, modern and enclosed market with stalls ranging from jewellery to food to souvenirs. Definitely worth checking out.
Berber & Q
Inspired by Ottoman grilling techniques, the roasted cauliflower we were to try at Berber & Q was probably the most unique dish we tried on the food tour and one I absolutely loved. The sharp smokey barbeque flavour of the cauliflower is richened by the tahini sauce drenched over it and punctuated by small twangs of acidity from balsamic vinegar, rounded out by the fragrance of pomegranate, rose water and small edible roses. It doesn’t sound like it should work but it does – please note this is a Sunday exclusive in lieu of wrestling the crowds at Brick Lane Markets for a bagel, but absolutely worth checking out even if you have to make a special trip.
House of Androuet
House of Androuet is the UK branch of a famous French cheese store and where we made a quick stop to try England’s most famous cheese: cheddar, specifically West Country Cheddar whose status is protected in Western England and has a deliciously smooth, very natural saltiness with a sweet, almost grassy undertone.
I’m not a blue cheese person but I found the Stilton Cheese one of the most accessible blue cheeses I’ve ever had. Made in only three counties in England, the cheese is injected with a blue mould, penicillium roqueforti, which makes the cheese incredibly creamy, and smooths out the sharp taste of mould you often get in other blue cheeses.
Poppie’s Fish and Chips
The wind was starting to take on a bit of a bite, which meant Poppie’s Fish and Chips – National Fish and Chips awards winner in 2014 and winner of the ‘healthiest’ Fish and Chips in 2015 – was the ideal next stop for something a bit warmer. The entire shop has the deliberate feel of an old time diner, full of quirky decorations and cockney rhyming slang along the tiled walls. Nicole also showed us their custom newspaper – printed with edible ink – used to wrap their takeaway orders. Fish and chips at Poppie’s was fried cod with fries and mashed peas. The cod was amazing, fried to perfection and incredibly fresh, falling apart on your fork. I definitely recommend using malt vinegar and salt, the ‘old school’ way to flavour the fish. I quite liked the peas, which were dense and sweet but they didn’t seem to be for everyone in the party. As an English staple though, it’s definitely something you should try, especially with the fish.
The Pride of Spitalfields
An English food tour isn’t complete without a stop at the pub and The Pride of Spitalfields is one of the last remaining ‘free houses’ in London, meaning it’s independently owned. This pub has its own social media star in Lenny, the pub cat, who sat at the counter comfortable with the regulars. The ale served here is cask ale, served straight from the cask and it has a somewhat hoppy, bitter taste due to the yeast rising to the top from higher fermentation temperatures. I enjoyed the orchard cider more, which is made from 90% fermented apple with no artificial colours or flavouring. It’s got quite a sharp, mealy taste but was still quite sweet and refreshing. A little dangerous though.
The overall theme of the walking part of the tour was diverse and our guides, particularly Nicole, introduced some theatrical flair to the way she introduced each landmark. The tour highlighted the rich and sometimes quirky history of East End’s landmarks, its notable houses (such as one street with an old house used for period movies including The Danish Girl – Nicole recalls once turning into that at night street and seeing an artificial moon!) and background on notable street art as we wandered along Brick Lane. Incorporated into that, however, was also to show how the area has transformed under the influence of the various cultural and ethnic groups that lived in the area throughout London’s history: the French, Jewish, and now Bangladeshi, along with the culture that developed from fisherman and working class in the Docklands.
Aladin has been open since 1970 and features the most popular dish in Britain: curry! Yes, you read that correctly – there are 16,000 curry shops in the UK. Aladin is no exception and its cuisine is Bangladeshi – in fact, 90% of the ‘Indian’ population in UK are actually from Bangladesh. My favourite, the Chicken Tikka Garlic Chili Marsala, has sweet, coconut notes to the curry and the chicken is well cooked and packed with flavour. The lamb bhojon flavour incorporates a more complex mix of spices and is closer to flavours preferred in India.
With a little bit more of a wander through Brick Lane, we arrived at our final destination: Pizza East where we had some tea to round out our tour and the famous Salted Caramel Chocolate tart.
The place is beautifully spacious and rustic and definitely notched in my ‘to revisit’ list for its pizza-related offerings. But back to the tart. Featured in Timeout’s Top 100 Dishes in London (along with Poppie’s fish and chips), the tart deserves its accolades and is probably one of the best I’ve had – gorgeous, rich smooth chocolate ganache on a crumbly but firm biscuit base and chewy, flavourful caramel (though I’d say it’s not that salted and closer to just being normal caramel). I were absolutely full by the end of the tour but it did still feel like something I could walk off.
Nicole and Sarah concluded the tour with a helpful pamphlet of all the places we ate, along with a list of recommendations for further eating, travel tips and suggestions on things to do.
The East End London Tour deserves all its accolades, I would highly recommend it and would definitely be looking to try its other tours when in Europe.