The books in the Edible series cover the history of foods and drinks all over the world. But Reaktion’s own home, Clerkenwell, has a few foodie stories of its own . . .
Our tour begins just off the Clerkenwell Road, the thoroughfare that connects Clerkenwell with New Oxford Street to the west and Old Street to the east. The streets Saffron Hill, Vine Hill and Herbal Hill are named for the gardens that grew there in the sixteenth century, before Clerkenwell was part of London proper. It is unclear who owned and tended these gardens, but one possibility is that it was the gardener, herbalist and writer John Gerard, who published one of the first and best-known British herbals in 1597.
Carry on along Clerkenwell Road towards Clerkenwell Green, and you will pass St Peter’s, the Italian church in London. Next to it is Terroni’s, the oldest Italian deli in England, first established in 1878 (though it recently reopened after a four-year hiatus). Clerkenwell was traditionally the destination for Italian immigrants to London in the late nineteenth century and thousands of them settled here. As we learn from Laura B. Weiss’s Ice Cream, many became ice cream or ‘hokey pokey’ vendors, selling ice cream, wrapped in newspaper, for a penny a ‘lick’.
Turn right down Farringdon Road and then left along West Smithfield to reach Smithfield Market, London’s most famous meat market, which is still in use today. In Oliver Twist Dickens describes the market, with its ‘countrymen, butchers, drovers, hawkers, boys, thieves, idlers, and vagabonds of every low grade . . . mingled together in a mass’ and ‘the whistling of drovers, the barking dogs, the bellowing and plunging of the oxen, the bleating of sheep, the grunting and squeaking of pigs, the cries of hawkers, the shouts, oaths, and quarrelling on all sides’. Many of the streets and pubs in the area bear names related to the meat industry, from Cowcross Street to Poultry Avenue. Walking back north towards St John Street, you will see Fergus Henderson’s famous offal restaurant, St John.
Now go west along Charterhouse Street, turning into Goswell Road. This was a great centre for gin-distilling in the nineteenth century. The gin manufacturer Gordon & Co., now part of global giant Diageo, moved here less than twenty years after starting operations in Southwark; according to Lesley Jacobs Solmonson in Gin, they found the water from the Clerk’s Well, the well from which Clerkenwell takes its name, purer and more suitable for use in distilling. Tanqueray & Co. was also to be found on Goswell Road after it was established in 1830.
Turn left along Great Sutton Street and end the mini tour with a visit to Reaktion’s own local, The Slaughtered Lamb.