It’s been a year since we walked down Brick Lane to Beigel Bite and wrote my first review.
I remember not knowing what to write. What words were going to fall on the page, just that I was going to let it flow out in word document. 19 posts later what I’ve discovered in the past 12 months is that food is a wonderful way of travelling, widening your scope and enriching your experience of the world. I get to play the idiot who doesn’t know shit and let the world come to me. In journalism, you’re always looking out for the story like some factual white whale. I think the story of this blog and this post is my own personal story. The story of someone who would not stop learning about this world, from the luxury of a knife and fork. An appetite for learning shall we say?
What was I doing there? Why did I want to write a food blog? The embarrassing truth is that your dear writer is as untravelled, unwordly and unschooled as they come. In that case who better to record and document their experiences? Someone so uncultured they don’t even have the sophistication to be prejudiced? Someone who simply yearns to explore and tell tales. There’s something of the Victorian explorer about it all. Conclusively, this blog has been a huge opportunity to learn a little about the world, one meal at a time. By way of doing this I’ve paved a future for myself as a writer and blogger, but a part of your future is knowing where you come from. So, like honouring a pilgrimage we’re going to Brick Lane again to review it’s neighbour, (and surely no way a rival) Beigel Shop. Let’s hope we find ourselves along the way.
Bruised together by a shared history, Beigel Shop and Bite were originally owned by the same family. Immigration to this area started around the middle of the 19th century through to the second world war. (the Freud family escaped to London from Nazi-occupied Vienna a year before Sigmund passed) Most of them throughout the 150 years escaped from persecution and poverty in Eastern Europe and Russia. Among these immigrants were skilled butchers and bakers who sold their proletariat skills amongst the community. During the heyday, there were dozens of bakeries in the area and the BBC reports 150 Synagogues. Beigel Bake and Beigel Shop are the main two remaining. Existing to my genteel mind as a shrine to prior territory and claimed space. The last two bastions of a voice, standing as a hallmark to memory and commemoration. Don’t immediately flock towards a Jewish museum, head here first.
Eating from this corner of the world you enjoy part of the culture and the history of people who made London their home far before I made it mine. Before the boom of Bali balti curry houses and Jack the Ripper, before the Chatterley Ban and the Beatles first LP. Respectfully remember to mind your Ps and Qs as we line up and turn down the beggars hustling at the entrance, they’ve only been there since the time of the U.S. Civil War.
If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It
So as we can see from the image, this is Britain’s oldest and first Beigel Shop. Established 1855. It is open 365/24/7.
The interior is large and spread thin. Its coolly metal in colour, with those rural, rustic and warm colours typical of the 70s. The groovy font of the shop dates it too as well. Nothing much looks like it’s change. The aroma is thick with rich and meaty goodness. Lots of that distinct bread baking smell in the air. London’s Heart radio station plays from behind the counter, Prince’s Raspberry Beret plays, instant top marks.
And they have a lot more delicatessen; cakes and pastries lined along the counter which stretches well over 10 feet into the room. Various perfect sweet accompaniment to a savoury lunch or dinner. When coming here, just like Beigel Bites, you want to try either of the house specials; salt beef or salmon and cream cheese.
” . . challha is soft and sweet as vehicle for variety of fillings. Slight crust on top, with an overtone of sweetness that comes with white innards. . . “
I hunch over a small wall length desk opposite the counter, setting my paper bags on the steel top. Again, this is street food, don’t come here expecting a table and chairs waiting. It’s grab and go stuff. Each order comes in plain white, grease proof paper bags, specially to take out and eat elsewhere. The floor is cracked tiles, presumably under the weight of nearly everyone passing through London standing on them.
Historically, Brick Lane shares its memory with the Bengali community, Jewish immigrants and exploded in Victorian London. Whitechapel used to be a prostitution central of the capital. Tis a strange thought to be standing here, where the Krays used to own, the victims of Jack the Ripper and a million and one stories trying to make a living in the city. What would these beigels say if they could natter? What would the walls whisper in the dark to the plaques and street lamps that have illuminated these streets?Brick Lane and nearby Whitechapel only had street lighting out in a year after Ripper’s reign of terror to assure people of their safety in the London dark.
For a jumped up country boy raised with a dying, latent Catholicism in New Labour’s 90s, turned atheist in the cold digital light of modernism, this is a journey to a whole other world. The sights, sounds and whole experience of Brick Lane is different. What else don’t I know? Community and family are important to these bakers. Change is cancer, change is the killer. There will be no deviation from the recipe. It’s been with us since day one, and it’s likely to be our last meal: Next. Soft brioche bun, sliced. Mustard. Pickles. Salt beef. Cash only. Thank you. Next. Even the innards tell us a lot. Before refrigeration meat was salted to keep things edible. Salted beef lasted longer in bygone times.
The staff service isn’t so much service as they are experienced, battle hardened queue busters, completely on point and on their feet. Always something to do. As I said in my first review, lord help who ever stammers or hesitates on front of these guys. And people holler from the door with “oi oi!”s and waves of recognition, clearly there’s locals and roots here. And that word that reverberates throughout – community. Most charming of all, during one of my meals, staff from Beigel Bake come in asking for change of a few £20s, exchanging a hug and a smile and making conversation. Tours of all languages stop by, and you know you’ve made it in the culinary world if tourists are stopping to look at your shop.
We’re in a bakers, let’s talk first about the bread. They sell them on their own too. Large tufts of freshly made bread, 12,000 a week are made. The challha is soft and sweet as a vehicle for a variety of innards. Slight crust on top, with an overtone of sweetness that comes with white innards, it’s stuff designed to hold together nice, thick fillings and soak up all the juices and flavours. The bread is boiled before being baked, giving it a unique slight toughness. On my second trip the staff handled an irritant customer who demanded to inspect a single bread roll by hand. Comical almost; the scrupled, furrowed brow this gentlemen had while looking at a mighty bread roll. He insisted that they weren’t fresh. This was the wrong. thing. to say. One staff member, cutting the rant short snapped back “Yes they’re fresh, 30p each.”
He bought ten.
Their salt beef joints, huge and roasting in the front window, looking for all the world like Voldemort’s last horcrux. Cuts are sliced off per order. Beef comes roasted hot dark pink-red, with tender strings, smelling strongly of gloriously roasts, vivid in flavour, hangs limpidly. These rolls come packed!
Interesting fact, Leviticus mandates that a meal without salt cannot be considered a meal, and the seasoning represents an eternal covenant with God. This is from the Jewish Encyclopedia:
“Just as salt was absolutely necessary at meals,[. . . ] the “food of God” (comp. “leḥem Elohaw,” Lev. xxi. 22). The Law expressly says (ib. ii. 13): “Every oblation of thy meal-offering shalt thou season with salt.””
And this beef packs it, brine and bitter beef that clings in the taste memory. A unique taste that isn’t so much smoke or cured as it is salted to its very core, so much so that it feels like it’s natural taste, clearly they’re the experts at this. Keeping it company was pickles, which go so well, cooling and sour, with the salted, dried meat and fiery Colman’s original mustard keeping it all together into a flavorful blend. Pickles instantly cooling against fiery mustard and watering the brackish beef; a salty, fiery, meaty sour hash. In the best possible way. This isn’t fine dining, this is food for workers and people on the go, like it always has been. One could overthink that the Colman’s is a symbolic gesture, using the English’ed condiment of the new land to flavour the traditional food of the immigrant. Being one of the oldest food brands around, est. 1814, and by royal appointment as the mustard providers to Queen Victoria, with associations of the British Empire this could be a very quick way for an outsider to align themselves with the establishment. A humanizing effect? “here is the food of my peeps, but I’ve added you to it as well. . . “
Well, perhaps they haven’t avoided changes after all? And speaking of condiments I couldn’t help but think what a splash of sriracha sauce in the bun with the beef would taste like but perhaps that’s my modern sensibilities coming forward.
The other house special, salmon and cream cheese (£2.80) is a pleasing counter to the hard and heavy salt beef. Soft, creamy textures, a lot easier and lighter on the stomach than the traditional salt beef. The cream cheese goes well, anodyne well with the salmon, and with lemon and pepper to season the innards. I honestly can’t pick which one I like more. But the salmon and cream cheese stays in the taste’s memory a lot longer for me.
In my first review I complained about having the meat slide out of the bun while eating, these buns came even more packed but I’ve no complaints now. I’m a veteran of pop ups and markets now. But it does need saying, these buns come packed! It’s the same with the tasty bacon and cream cheese beigel (£4). These guys really aren’t interested in going cheap on their customers.
There’s other sides, as well and I try an onion bhaji; dry and paste like, with curry powder that makes all the difference. Perhaps more evidence to the argument that things aren’t quite as conservative as they appear? Would they be serving this had the Bengali population exploded after the Jews started to make a home here? Signs of fusion and cross pollination?
Also, let’s point out the pricing. A salt beef beigel with a can of coke that costs less that an entire £4 Pret-a-manger sub sandwich. In London, can you afford to sniff at that? At least here you’re putting money into an independent place that’s part of London’s history?
And to finish off, a danish croissant (85p), very large for the price with soft, crumbling pastry, lemon glazing, and currants in the pastry. But frankly, dry. A fine dessert which washes the mouth with sugar and citrus lemon after pungent and strong flavours from the two rolls and bhaji.
With all that heat and salt and fat you’ll need a coke can to wash out the mouth, the drinks on offer are your usual suspects, cokes and sprites and orange juices and waters. The fridge behind the counter is an array of cans of fizz and pop. Behind the counter are various different tea bags, a microwave and a pie counter. A lot more variety in the Beigel Shop.
In able to review this place I went here on and off for a few months. I’m thankful above all we decided to come here one last time, the Sunday before publishing. Turns out Sunday mornings on Brick Lane is market day. The entire road is closed down and the hoards of people crowd around for a Sunday brunch. Not the Subway across the road – (the audacity to decide you’re competition to Bites and Bake!) – but the queues are formed around the door of both beigel places.
I appreciate that a lot of tourists and locals alike have a lot riding on me deciding who was better Bake vs Shop. You’re not really going to get an answer to one of London’s most debated argument. Go with a group, buy several from each and compare. Make a day of it. Are you Team Shop or Team Bake? 😉
You Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?
When handing me my food I had to ask “Sorry, I’m just curious, is it true you guys are really open 24/7!?” They both nodded.
“Yup, come here anytime!”
She’s probably said it a thousand times to anyone who asked that question. But it fit. Think I will I said back. 24/7 selling beigels. You wake up in the middle of the night hungry? These guys are open. You hungry at lunch? These guys are open. Anytime of any day or night these guys are selling their craft. It’s been the same since they opened in 1977. They had the skills and the place in order to sell what they had. They made do and built an identity and niche for themselves. And by doing do Beigel Shop have remained throughout the years, hearkening back to a time where the local citizens didn’t need commemoration, or to think about how their culture was going to survive.
But then one remembers, this is why I do this blog. To get out there, and live and enjoy breaking bread with others from across borders and barriers. Today, I’ve shaken hands and dined with the spirits of the Giuseppe’s and Zara’s and David’s that got on boats and trains and made a home for themselves here. I do this blog because a meal isn’t just a meal. It’s a capsule and a voice and a way of life. It’s politics and history and the voice of a people and the voice of an individual. It’s survival and murder and territory and sex and success. It’s storytelling. It’s everything. Still here and still proud to welcome you. Each dish tells a story. You want to understand a culture? Eat their food. Have a bite and know us.
Thanks for reading,
the Poet of Cuisine.
. . . back to the homepage.