Even if you’re not a Cockney rhyming slang aficionado, you probably still know that “apples and pears” means “stairs”. But did you know that those two very British fruits have a deeper connection to East London, and to Spitalfields in particular?
As I walk along Commercial Street, our guide Flic points to a bronze plaque of the fruits on the floor. “Spitalfields was once a market for fruit and vegetables and dates back to the 13th century,” she explains.
It was here, and in wider East London, that Cockney rhyming slang was born, a secret language created by street traders and gangsters in the 1840s as a means of hiding their dodgy dealings from the police.
The term “apples and pears” stems from the traders, who would display their wares in “steps and stairs” on their stalls to make them look appealing.
From markets to chippies, Eating Europe’s four-hour East London food tour takes guests on a lip-smacking stroll around the area (priced £80pp, eatingeurope.com/london).
The history we learn is fascinating, with the lovely Flic telling us entertaining tales of the characters, cultures and communities that have left their mark here through the centuries.
French Huguenots, persecuted in their home country, settled in Spitalfields in the 1600s, attracted by the prospect of jobs, cheap food and lodgings.
They were master weavers and helped the silk industry to thrive, so much so that Spitalfields was dubbed “Weaver Town”.
On Fournier Street, we see the houses – now worth millions – where the Huguenots used to spend their days weaving silk in front of giant attic windows.
When the Huguenots left, the Irish arrived, escaping the potato famine, then Jews from eastern Europe seeking refuge from the pogroms.
On a pit stop at Brick Lane’s famous 24-hour Beigel Bake, we sample a delicacy brought over by the Jewish community: succulent salt beef served in a deliciously chewy bagel (these ones are boiled before being baked) and slathered with hot mustard.
The Bangladeshi community that arrived in the 1970s also brought their own flavours, many setting up restaurants on Brick Lane. We try three dishes at award-winning restaurant Aladdin’s, including a standout sweet-yet-spicy lamb curry.
The British classics are just as special. A bread and butter pudding served at The English Restaurant is happiness in a bowl: smooth custard smothered over gooey morsels of bread and dusted with crunchy demerara sugar.
At Poppies Fish & Chips, Cockney rhyming slang phrases are emblazoned across the shop’s walls, alongside photographs of the Kray twins, the Queen and the Beatles. Poppies owner Pat Newland has been serving fish and chips since the 1950s – today they’re served in faux-newspaper wraps, but the quality of the produce is the real deal.
Clients will leave this tour with full bellies and, more importantly, a deeper appreciation of the diverse cultures that have shaped our capital – and our palate.
Have you or your clients been on an Eating Europe food tour? Or can you recommend any other London foodie tours? Email firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know, or leave a comment below.