Pie and Mash is definitely one of the big ones; perhaps the single most iconic British dish outside of Fish ‘n Chips. We previously made mention of it when talking about Jellied Eel, but now we’re tackling it in full; Pie & Mash. We normally talk about the dish in detail first, but for this edition of Traditional British Dishes, we would like to give a little context to the dish and it’s rise in popularity first and foremost, which can be brought down to three things.
First of all, one of the frequently noted facts about the Victorian Era- thanks to the Industrial Revolution- is that certain parts of the city were quite heavily polluted and generally rather dirty. As a result, it tended to be the lower classes that occupied these parts of the city, almost all of which were towards the eastern part of the city- hence, the term “East End” and it’s association with working class grit.
Secondly, there was the existence of the Savoury Pie. By no means nothing new, the tradition of Savoury Pies had existed in Britain for centuries before, and had a number of benefits that perfectly suited the working class; namely, they were both easily portable meals, and the outer pastry shell protected the inner filling from the grubby hands of the workers that ate.
Lastly, somewhat tied to the first point, the pollution that plagued the city also heavily affected the River Thames. In fact, it had gotten so bad during the Victorian Era, that only one species of aquatic life could comfortably survive in the conditions; European Eels. And there was a plentiful supply of them within the river throughout the 1800s.
Combine all three of those with a side of inexpensive Mashed Potatoes and a a sauce largely made using the water the Eels were cooked in, and you have a meal that was more then perfect for the common people. Pie and Mash. Simple, but effective.
Pies containing either mutton or some an inexpensive minced meat were available at most Pie & Mash shops- and we must stress that most are only ever referred to as Shops, not Restaurants or Cafes- but usually at a higher cost, and therefor remained a less popular choice overall. In fact, it wasn’t until around the time of World War II that that began to change; a combination of both the Eel supply in the river dwindling fairly rapidly, and the availability of far cheaper Beef then before can be thanked for that.
We briefly went over the makeup of a Pie and Mash meal, but we would like to go into it with a little more detail. The Pie portion of the dish will generally comprise of two forms of Pastry- Suet for the base, and Short for the top or “coffin” of the Pie. The Mashed Potato will generally be spread neatly and evenly around one side of the plate. The sauce we briefly mentioned above is typically a Parsley-based sauce often called Ell Liquor Sauce (or just simply Liquor, despite no alcohol being present), which is generally quite watery in consistency, heavily flavoured by both the Eel it was used to cook, and both further flavoured and coloured green with the addition of the Parsley. This sauce is typically where most Pie & Mash shops would truly differ, with patrons often noting subtle or even substantial differences in any given shops take on the sauce. Occasionally, however, Gravy will be used in place of Eel Liquor Sauce. Common side dishes include Jellied Eels, Cockles, and Chilli Vinegar for dipping purposes.
Though most Pie & Mash shops will offer meat based pies as their standard dish, the Eel Pie has begun making a comeback of sorts in recent years, due in part to people wishing to further explore their roots and customs, leading to a gradual rise in popularity once more.