London may be a truly cosmopolitan capital in which it’s estimated that people of 270 different nationalities live and over 300 languages are spoken. It’s also an intensely modern city, able to stand shoulder to shoulder with any other capital in the world. But that’s not to say that there aren’t still many quintessentially London-centric activities and traditions. In fact, it might not be going to far to call them institutions that are woven so securely into the fabric of the city that they’ll never fade away.
Pie and Mash Shops
The capital may be a gastronomic hotspot resplendent with gastropubs and Michelin-starred restaurants but it also hangs doggedly on to some distinctly old-style eating establishments too. So no visit to the East End of London, for example to sample the many attractions of Stepney, would be complete without a visit to a pie and mash shop. These were first established in Victorian times as a cheap and convenient place for impoverished East Enders to get a good square meal consisting of a meat pie, mashed potato and a special parsley sauce called “liquor”. Always called shops, never restaurants, the design across the many that opened has remained very similar to this day. The wall are covered in white tiles and mirrors, the floors are marble as are the counters and tables. The reasons for this have always been more practical than aesthetic with surfaces easy to clean down at the end of the day.
Equally traditional are the recipes still used. The pie itself is filled with minced beef or mutton with a suet pastry base and a short or puff pastry topping. Traditionally, the liquor sauce is made from parsley mixed with the water used to stew eels – another local delicacy that can also be enjoyed in jelly. They’re something of an acquired taste.
Private Gaming Clubs
Gambling in all of its forms has always been a very popular activity not just in London but across the whole of the country. But while most casinos and other establishments outside of the capital, and even the majority within it, have generally free admission, there remain a number of these clubs where only members are allowed to play. These are direct descendants of the gentleman’s clubs that started to spring up in the 18th and 19th centuries, a number of which, including Boodle’s, White’s and The Garrick continue to this day.
Probably the heyday of capital’s gaming clubs in which only members were allowed to play was in the 1960s when they were very much part of the swinging London scene attracting everyone from celebrities to aristocrats. Perhaps the most famous of these was Aspinall’s, a club run by the charismatic John Aspinall who also had a private zoo as his other interest.
Members would gather to play the sorts of table games that are now widely available online including roulette and blackjack in a refined and exclusive atmosphere generally in elegant town houses around Knightsbridge and Mayfair. It’s a testament to the continuing appeal of these exclusive clubs that membership continues even though, today, there are many advantages to gaming online instead.
London Gin Distilleries
In the late 17th century, the government imposed very high duties on imports of alcohol from the continent. An unexpected result was the so-called Gin Craze. Very quickly hundreds of gin distilleries and shops selling their product started to spring up. Using a grade of barley not considered good enough for beer production, a special recipe called London Dry Gin was created. To qualify for this label a gin must be distilled to an initial strength of 96% with only natural additions including water and sugar. So quickly did the drink take off that by around 1720 over half of London’s 15,000 drinking establishments were gin shops often immortalised in the etchings of William Hogarth.
Gin has enjoyed a huge revival in the last few years and this has seen countless London Gin Distilleries either being revived or opened from new. Many of them even run experience days allowing visitors the chance to create their own unique blends as a delicious souvenir of their visit.
So, while getting into a members’ gaming club might be impossible, you’ll certainly be able to enjoy a true taste of London that may be a little way off the traditional tourist track. And we’ll certainly drink to that.