In the 1740s, pleasure boaters would jauntily sail from central London down the River Thames to an islet once known as Twickenham Ait in Richmond, mooring at an inn that had built a reputation across the city for selling just one thing: eel pies.
Eel Pie House was the grand tavern’s name, and punting parties would drift along the shore and then congregate for merry picnics on the riverside. Inside, the inn’s chefs would skin, debone and trim batches of Thames eels into three-inch chunks, before stewing them ready for pastry and the pie oven.
Years later, the islet would be rechristened Eel Pie Island, and the eel-filled pastry’s transformation from nutritious novelty to cheap, ubiquitous foodstuff was complete. Today, London’s original fast food still inspires travellers to seek it out, despite the passing of hundreds of years.
When I met Rick Poole on a softly lit lunchtime in spring, he was considering this same history and how, at the turn of the 20th Century, the humble eel came to define his family’s legacy. “We used to have sawdust on the floor of our shops to soak up the juice from the discarded eel bones,” he recalled. “It was quite a horrible thing. Awful, really. And we had the sawdust right up until the late 1970s.”