Keeping it Eel

East London’s oldest remaining Eel, Pie & Mash shop is a Grade II listed marvel and a keystone of Walthamstow’s cultural heritage.

By Google Arts & Culture

L. Manze, Walthamstow

“We do it all ourselves,” says Tim Nicholls, owner of the Walthamstow-based eel, pie and mash shop, L. Manze. “We don’t rely on no-one for nothing.”

Manze’s, as it’s locally known, is in many ways a site of quiet defiance. Resplendent in its original, 1920s Art Deco garb, and sticking to tried-and-tested culinary principles, the shop is an oasis of craft and care in a market increasingly defined by mass-production, chemical preservatives, and the illusion of choice. 

Simply by doing its thing, Manze’s has also become a keystone of East London’s surviving cultural heritage.

L. Manze, Walthamstow

“L. Manze is Luigi Manze,” says Nicholls. “the family come from Rivello in Italy, and this shop opened in 1927.” The Walthamstow shop is one of the few surviving examples of what was once a thriving family business with many sites across London. 

“They were all initialled different because some were owned by cousins, brothers. I don’t know where they all went and how they all worked out, but each son or daughter had one,” Nicholls explains.

L. Manze Eel, Pie and Mash ShopMayor of London

L. Manze’s isn’t quite the oldest surviving eel, pie and mash shop in London - that honor rests with one of its predecessors, M. Manze’s, on Tower Bridge Road, the first shop opened by the family after their arrival in London in 1878. Michaele Manze, Luigi’s brother, initially tried his hand at selling ice cream (with little success) before turning to eels, pie and mash. The Tower Bridge location opened in 1891.

L. Manze, Walthamstow

And whilst the Walthamstow branch is fully 35 years younger, its beautifully preserved facade and interior make it a true design gem. In 2013, it earned Grade II listed status, being praised by English Heritage for its “exceptionally complete interior.”

L. Manze, Walthamstow (14)

“Everything in the interior is original,” Nicholls explains. “The flooring is terrazzo and the walls are tiled. The ceiling is a stamped tin which is painted. A lot of the shops back in that era were like it; Sainsbury’s and Harrods, which still looks like that now. But a lot of places in London have been covered up.”

L. Manze, Walthamstow (16)

It’s not only L. Manze’s undeniably charming appearance that makes it such an important part of Walthamstow’s cultural landscape: it’s also due to the shop’s role in preserving the history and significance of pie and mash (and of course eels) which contribute so much to East London’s identity. The origins of these delicacies are disputed, a matter for local myth and banter, and in this sense become shared amongst the community.

L. Manze Eel, Pie and Mash ShopMayor of London

“There were some big names in pie and mash in years past,” says Nicholls. “The Coxes, the Manzes and the Kellys. But it’s like trying to say who invented the doner kebab! Some people make a claim, but nobody really knows!”

“It was a cheap meal, designed for certain parts of east London which weren’t so affluent. Eels were very common then, and they were very cheap. Obviously now they’re not and so you’re left with these beautiful eateries that just do pie and mash. We still do eels, but we get them already prepared now. They have to be kept in constant running water, so to keep them like that they’d end up being dearer than lobster!”

“A lot of people used to catch them in the river Lea and the Thames, but now most of them are farmed in Holland, and in certain times of the year you get the Irish ones from Lough Nay. They’re served jellied or stewed with mashed potato.”

L. Manze, Walthamstow (17)

And what about the future of a local delicacy competing in a changing market? “I’ve looked at food over the years, working in this industry,” says Nicholls, “and food has become fashion now.” From the current trend for ‘pulled’ pork and beef to bagels and panini, from gourmet burgers to sushi, Nicholls recalls and laments the boom-bust cycles of food fads on Britain’s high streets.

L. Manze Eel, Pie and Mash ShopMayor of London

“It’s great in one respect because you get to try and experience all different kinds of food. But so many of them, they come and then they go. They die out. Pie and mash is always going to be what it’s going to be. But it’s not ‘the’ thing anymore. It’s difficult. The high street is struggling. What with Brexit and everything else there’s so much uncertainty out there.”

L. Manze, Walthamstow (10)

Nicholls is also concerned about the rising cost of living, which keeps customers away from independent eateries. “In London, once you pay your rent and council tax and gas and electric, there’s not a whole lot left over. People just don’t have disposable income anymore. The footfall is nothing like what it was. I think it’s wrong, it shouldn’t have to be that way.”

L. Manze, Walthamstow (13)

But Nicholls, who has been at the helm of Manze’s for 33 years, believes that the eel, pie and mash shop, as a cultural and culinary institution, has its best hope in stoicism, continuing to do what it does best. 

L. Manze Eel, Pie and Mash ShopMayor of London

“We’re not doing anything different to what we’ve always done. If you go and do something different people say “it ain’t a pie and mash shop anymore”. Nothing made in this shop is older than 24 hours. With fast food, this is the closest you’re gonna get to homemade. We do everything ourselves here. That homemade feel is very important to me, yeah. It’s how it’s always been. Pie and mash is not dying.”

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