By Thames - The Hidden Food of Essex
Words by Ruby Tandoh; Illustration by Heedayah Lockman
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The recent history of Essex is often defined by exhalation, a flow of people from London towards the country and seaside towns. When the LCC morphed into the GLC, rewriting London’s boundaries, it gobbled up Romford, Upminster and Ilford, decimating Essex, but, in the process, remaking it. Essex, more than ever before, became London’s distorted mirror image, driven by what writer Tim Burrows describes as a kind of Cockney frontierism. In came those who were too much for London, or maybe those for whom London had become too much ─ families escaping to the New Towns, wideboys and villains in the mood for self-improvement, and those for whom Dagenham and Redbridge had become too full of the wrong person. When London sneezes, Essex doesn’t recoil, it says ‘bless you’ and mops everything up. Or at least that’s the simple story we’re told.
This story extends to the food of Essex, which is denigrated as much as its residents. It is not for nothing that the caricature of Essex is one of ‘lack of taste’ ─ of new money eating poor food (I have joked that Southend-on-Sea has the largest concentration of pie and mash shops in the country, a fact I cannot prove but I’m willing to bet on.) That Jay Rayner reviewed the magnificent Company Shed on Mersea Island, a BYOB (bring your own bread) seafood shack, is notable for its rarity ─ reviewers can tell better stories going to seaside towns in Kent or Sussex, where a new flowering of restaurants and wine bars wear metropolitan signifiers, making them easier to parse for Londoners and allowing the writer to affect mock surprise that cooking this good exists outside of London Fields.
Today’s newsletter by Ruby Tandoh aims to dismantle all these myths. Essex’s story is one of London’s inhalation too, of goods flowing westwards, of the Thames and its estuary, of wholesale warehouses, of the docks, of monumental things too big for London to contain. And there is much of it which is not defined by London at all, hidden to Londoners and totally of Essex itself ─ not a county made up of white flight but one where the HMS Empire Windrush once docked and where some of its passengers put down roots, where bacon butties and suya sit on the same industrial estates, maybe not speaking much to each other but co-existing nonetheless, and where a station car park holds more surprises than a London food hall. And, even among all of this, there is still space for jellied eels.
By Thames, by Ruby Tandoh
Just when you think you’ve seen it all, Essex winks, waves its wand and pulls another bird from the hat. This time, it is Trini-style barbecued chicken, whisked from an insulated bag in a quiet corner of Colchester station car park. While her husband and two girls wait in the car, Maria Walker hands over the still-warm boxes with a wry flourish. There are doubles, of course: feather-soft baras with a chickpea filling. There are homemade chutneys in tiny pots, the most compelling being a grated cucumber chutney with chilli and shado beni (the sawtoothed herb beloved in the Caribbean islands).
Although her mother Indra makes a lot of the food and her late father Nizam sparked the business idea, Maria is the willing face of DiDi’s Trinidadian Cuisine. Through a Facebook page, she lists the weekly menu and advertises the specials. On WhatsApp, she fields a stream of orders. When Friday evening rolls around, she delivers orders the length and breadth of the historic Roman town, from the suburbs near the university to the historic Dutch quarter and, in the fading light on this particular Friday, the station car park.
For Maria and Indra, cooking Trinidadian food in deepest Essex, dilemmas come hard and fast. There is the question of whether to indulge British people’s preference for meat served off the bone, or how best to meet the appetites of the growing vegan community in the city. Their Trini customers are no less exacting. ‘If I took doubles off the menu even for one week,’ Maria notes, ‘we’d have World War Three.’ Getting the raw materials can also be a struggle: she all but smuggled a traditional mill from Trinidad to make her dhalpuri roti and, in the past, has had to ask an aunty to send shado beni via 24-hour FedEx.
Outsiders could be forgiven for not knowing that Essex has such riches. In his documentary The Joy of Essex, Jonathan Meades describes ‘the long tradition of Essex being shaped by its closeness to London, specifically by its proximity to the poorest parts of London.’ Part of the county lies within the M25 orbital motorway and much of the rest of it is laddered along commuter rail lines: eclipsed by the much-hyped food cultures of the capital city, the food of Essex never stood a chance. Where a definition – or many definitions – of Essex food should be, there’s a blank space.
It’s a shame, because people eat well here – they haul palettes of garri from lorries; grow fields of marigold-yellow oilseed rape; fry roti; shuck oysters; stir brown shrimp with butter and nutmeg – feeding not only each other but also the city looming in the south-west. Maria’s food is Trinidadian, but it is also Essex food, made on the southern edges of England’s oldest town, eighty kilometres and a million miles from the Tilbury docks where her father first arrived on the Windrush. This kind of eating is tied to every detail of the county: from landscape to history, infrastructure, and people. Food because of, not in spite of, Essex.
To understand the food of Essex, you have to understand the land where it lays down roots. If I walked directly south from my childhood home in Southend-on-Sea, along the roads where I used to do my paper round then downhill to the shore, I’d reach a part of the beach where an obelisk pierces mud and pewter water. This is the Crow Stone. On the other side of the estuary, and far out of sight, is another obelisk: the London Stone, which stands in the mudflats of the Hoo Peninsula. As Lara Maiklem notes in Mudlarking, ‘The invisible line drawn across the river between the two is known as the Yantlet Line. It is around thirty-four miles from London Bridge and once marked the limits of the City of London’s control over fishing rights and tolls on the river.’
Southend can feel like the end of the world: at the edge of river and sea, it sits on the southernmost tip of the county and at the furthest reaches of the railway line. The town splays along the shore, oriented not towards the city but towards the water and what, as a child, I thought was France, but is in fact Kent. At tiny seafood shacks in arches fronting the sea, you can buy – like I did once on a dare – jellied eels in polystyrene cups. Historically, eels were some of the few creatures that could live in the filthy Thames, an East End survival food that worked its way downriver to the coast. (Over time, the water got better – the jellied eels did not.) Further west, at Osborne & Sons in Old Leigh, cockles are sold by the pint. These tiny bivalves have existed around here in one form or another for over 55 million years, since Essex was the bed of a tropical sea. Today, the cockles are shaken free from the heavy Thames mud, shelled and processed for the brisk weekend trade along the fishing port’s cobbled streets.
Because of the cultural weight it carries, it’s easy to forget that Essex is a physical place, made of heavy clay, fields, marshlands and coast, but this geography is vital. In the Blackwater Estuary, which pierces the eastern flank of the county, oysters have been cultivated since the Roman occupation; this continues into the present day. Maldon salt is still harvested in the area in much the same way as it was in the Iron Age, starting with the flood of saltwater into the marshes on a high tide. In the north-west of the county there were once fields of saffron crocuses, replaced by the 1700s with dozens upon dozens of maltings. Barley thrived in the mild, dry Essex weather, and so-called maltsters (the cutest name for a skilled profession) sprung up alongside canals, rivers and roads, supplying brewers across East Anglia and London with malt for making beer.
A lot of Essex food, produced by digging into the soil and water of this extravagantly ordinary county, depends on these landscapes, but such steady things only tell part of the story. The Essex terroir isn’t just chalk pits and brackish waters but also Roman roads, industrial docklands and roaring motorways. It’s the tides and the traffic, the endless shuttling of people into and out of the city, the slow creep of capital into the ends. The food of Essex is food on the move.
One of the first things the Romans did as they settled into their new dominion in the mid-first century was to build a road into Essex. The road swept down from Iceni settlements in Norfolk through to Camulodunum (now Colchester). From there, it veered south-west into Londinium, then a tiny Roman stronghold on the north bank of the Thames. For a while, traffic flowed heavily into Camulodunum, which was at the time the capital of the Roman Empire in Britannia. When the centre of gravity shifted to Londinium in the second century, the tide turned, but still the road ran strong.
Roughly halfway along that road between Colchester and London, Caesaromagus (Caesar's Market) was positioned for easy trade between the two great Roman hubs. When the Romans left Britain and the road fell into disrepair, Caesaromagus would disappear, only to be resurrected as Chelmsford around the end of the twelfth century when a new bridge was repaired and traffic put the site back on the map. A food culture emerged: an agricultural belt bloomed across central Essex, feeding Essex’s own towns and the city in the west; traders clustered along the highways; and cooks worked to feed this hungry moving workforce. In his 1722 diaries of a trip through the east of England, Daniel Defoe wrote of the central Essex commuter belt that ‘Brentwood and Ingatestone, and even Chelmsford itself, have very little to be said of them, but that they are large thoroughfare towns, full of good inns, and chiefly maintained by the excessive multitude of carriers and passengers which are constantly passing this way to London.’
Over time, the routes and roads would change. In the nineteenth century, as industry began to proliferate in the East End, the agricultural trade flowing through central Essex began to stagnate. Factories sprang up along the banks of the Thames, moving beyond horses and carts to barges, steam engines and eventually container ships. Ports became larger and the workforce grew, drawn in from the city fringes and, after a time, pushed out to the Essex burbs. Downwind of the factories, the estuary came to life. The artery that sustained Essex (and London in turn) was no longer the Roman road or the snaking A12 that overlaid it, but the Thames.
Industrial Essex has its spiritual heart spread along twenty-five miles of river between Dagenham and London Gateway port, where the optimistically named Thames Haven is located. This is a land of superhuman things: Hermes delivery centres, the M25, shipping containers stacked in their thousands. The biggest structure in Tilbury right now is the Spirit of Discovery luxury cruise liner, nearly a quarter of a kilometer long and, in the face of a pandemic, hulking moodily over the town from its dock. Along the banks, this constant flow has created an unusual food microculture, not unlike the inns of Defoe’s Chelmsford some 300 years ago.
In the steel and concrete hinterlands south of Lakeside Shopping Centre, the Big Blue Food Bus – a grounded double-decker, daubed sky-blue and kitted out with a full cafe kitchen – serves god-tier bacon sandwiches under the roar of the Dartford Crossing. A short walk away, an in-store cafe in a Selco builders’ merchants delivers experiential retail in a way that Sephora could never, mingling the smell of timber and paint with frying sausages, coffee and egg. In Tilbury, between a vast port and a vaster Amazon fulfilment centre, Nigerian restaurant Right Time offers £6 lunchboxes of jollof, chicken and a drink for the harried, or tilapia pepper soup for those with time to spare. This is the reclaimed fast-casual dining that bigger UK cities try to ape but struggle to pull off. Downriver, but never behind the curve.
In these in-between places, a dual food culture emerges. There’s that flourishing of food to go for the people who work in the area’s ports, warehouses and factories. But there is also food that is destined to go elsewhere, channelled via Essex to the capital. This is the food that travels through the docks, tropical fruit wholesalers and specialist spice importers on its way to a waiting mouth. It’s the mountains of grain that pile high in Tilbury’s grain store and the industrial bakery in Grays. On the concrete fringes of Basildon, the arterial road between Southend and London is home to online African food shop Wosiwosi, which deals in uziza, honey beans, stockfish, kilishi and iru, unloaded from vans into warehouses and from warehouses into cardboard boxes to be shipped to customers nationwide. Across the drive, Nigerian restaurant 80K, in the shadow of a scaffolder’s yard flying no fewer than eight St George’s flags, turns some of these staples into ayamase and bitterleaf soup, suya and fufu. These places aren’t epicentres, but they’re intricately connected to places that are. In the process of feeding the city, Essex is finding new ways of feeding itself.
Essex is hardly known for its good taste. This is the territory of the mythic ‘Essex man,’ a shorthand popularised by journalist Simon Heffer to capture the ‘young, industrious, mildly brutish and culturally barren’ workers who swarm westward to the City skyline each morning and drift back into the flat, sprawling suburbs at night. This man and his counterpart, the Essex girl, are not moneyed, but too showy; not thoughtful, but too outspoken; not authentic, but too resolutely themselves. None of this makes sense, obviously, but that’s what happens when you entrust the definition of a county to people who hate it. It ain’t no London: it’s not London, it’s too London, not London enough.
But despite being a BNP heartland in the very recent past and making unpleasant history when it became, in 2016, the only county to have elected a UKIP MP (in Clacton on the far east coast), Essex is not solely the territory of such mythical beasts. Just as food flows through this county, so do people: commuters, migrants, seasonal workers, students, those displaced from the eastern fringes of London, hauliers and holidaymakers, all arriving from the city or the sea to this place between something and everything. The county is less white now than ever, and even its whiteness isn’t a monolith. Food answers to appetite and the appetites of Essex are as varied as the nearly two million people who live here.
In Chelmsford, a growing Ghanaian population is catered to by Mama Saaga, a restaurant and takeaway perched on the edge of a dual carriageway to the south of the town centre. Here there is waakye served in a way I’ve struggled to find in London, with the requisite extras of talia (spaghetti) and garri stained bronze with palm oil. A Kosher grocery shop on Canvey Island meets the needs of the hundreds-strong Hasidic Jewish community that relocated to this quiet outcrop from busy London. Wivenhoe, a small estuary town south of Colchester, boasts not one but two vegan bakeries – one Norwegian, one Bolivian – which do a healthy trade among wealthy residents, tourists and students from the nearby University of Essex. Thurrock, along the south-western edge of the county, is particularly diverse: this is where the Windrush once docked, and where today you can find Nigerian spot Laredos Suya Grill, tucked away in a shed in a car park behind a grocery store. Worship songs, and the smell of browning meat, ginger and smoke, will guide you there.
Food cultures that are this close to London can end up slipping across the event horizon: either they are not seen at all, or they’re sucked completely into the city’s ways of eating and cooking. Small plates in Margate or Folkestone speak to the influence of the London restaurant scene on Kent’s idea of good food. Destination restaurants in Berkshire are a home from home for the capital elite. It’d be easy enough for Essex to slip into these ways of eating, but although there are glimpses – a burger place with an illegibly tiny wall menu in Southend, for instance – there’s also a slipperiness that keeps food in transit, evolving, reimagining itself and moving on.
In the constant to and fro, an eclectic treasure has been deposited along the banks of the Thames. There are ice cream vans, churches and old forts. There are Afro-Caribbean shops and glistening silver waters and Nepalese lunchbox deals. There’s a shop called Curtains Babe, countless Wimpy restaurants and precious wetlands. Through air and saltwater, through the Dartford tunnel and winding creeks, hungry people move to and through this place. Things change quickly here, on the tides and in the traffic, but there is always good food to be had. ‘By Thames,’ Thurrock’s motto goes, ‘to all people of the world.’
Ruby Tandoh is a cook and food writer currently living in London. She is the author of Eat Up: Food, Appetite and Eating What You Want. Her new book, Cook As You Are, is out in October.
The illustration is by Heedayah Lockman, a Glasgow-based freelance illustrator and graphic designer, with an architectural background. Inspired by still life and food, she enjoys exploring colour and different techniques by using grids and patterns that contrast the shapes of everyday objects. Please find more of her work on Instagram; @heedayahlockman.