Maggie’s greatest gift
Touring the Med in the pioneering gastropub that transformed how we eat
‘‘I got some!”
My mother, round about 1989, plonking a Sainsbury’s carrier bag triumphantly on our scrubbed pine kitchen table. She’d driven to Chester at 7am on a Saturday to queue for a little jar of magic that was going to transform our lives.
Ceremoniously, she unscrewed the lid so that we could inhale a whiff of the warm south. My father made spaghetti Bolognese for lunch, with the pesto carefully stirred through the pasta, a heterodox move, but then basil had come late to the north of England.
It didn’t matter that whatever dingy mix of rapeseed oil and lonely pine nut the Italians had dumped contemptuously in the pot didn’t really taste of much except slimy grass, or that it sat awkwardly with Dad’s mince and tinned tomatoes. We were eating green spaghetti, just like on the Continent.
If that all sounds a bit Alan Bennett it’s because Alan Bennett is from the north, and it was actually exactly like an Alan Bennett play when I was growing up there. Sneer all you like, but long before the Cricket boutique and footballer’s mansions, Merseyside was on the map. We’d no sooner got over pesto than Next opened a coffee shop, right in the middle of Ladies’ Separates.
Meanwhile, down south, The Eagle in Farringdon was serving real pesto, made by hand from hard-to-source basil to people who worked in an industry that was beginning to call itself “the media”. The Grauniad was round the corner, hard by the ITN studios and the area was becoming what we learned to think of as edgy.
While pesto has since become as ubiquitous as fish fingers, more than 30 years on Britain’s original gastropub still feels surprising, not least because we have Mrs Thatcher to thank for it.
credit where it’s due, the gastropub was born in Grantham
Between the eighteenth and the twentieth centuries, the retail distribution of beer was controlled by brewing companies, who eventually consolidated into six major firms. An anti-trust investigation in 1969 was foiled by “The Beerage” clinging determinedly to their monopoly, but in the flurry of deregulation in 1989 the breweries’ vertically integrated sales structure was dismantled and over 11,000 independent licenses issued, including the deeds to a dodgy boozer in Clerkenwell where founders Michael Belben and David Eyre set out to serve “good food and drink in convivial surroundings”. It’s hard to express quite how radical this was at a time when pubs served revolting snacks at best and restaurants were still stuffy and linen-shrouded.
Maybe Maggie herself demanded more with her port and lemon than a pickled egg and a packet of Walkers, but credit where it’s due, the gastropub was born in Grantham.
So we’ve got no council houses or hospitals or public transport, but at least anyone who can still afford it can be sure of a grilled mackerel bruschetta with escabeche and heritage tomato jam of a lunchtime. Perhaps Billy Bragg could do something with that.
The Eagle has had only three head chefs since it opened, and the approach — no reservations and a last-minute menu chalked up five minutes before service based on “a holiday around the Mediterranean” — has remained the same.
Eyre’s original cooking was influenced by the Portuguese/North African flavours of a childhood spent in Malawi, the citrus, flavoured vinegars and deep, earthy spices which have been crossing the Straits of Gibraltar since the eighth century.
The Portuguese presence is still strong, though it jostles for pole position with Italian cucina povera, as in pappa al pomodoro, the vaguely Tuscan bread and tomato soup, or trofie with mozzarella and ’nduja (the latter a sprint from Liguria to Calabria as regionally unconvincing as the green spaghetti but infinitely more delicious). This is food that everyone is used to now, which means that it has to be exceptionally good to convince, and at The Eagle it does.
Goats’ cheese with lentils, beetroot and rocket looked wonderfully autumnal, the high bitterness of the curdy cheese set off by the peppery crunch of the leaves and the slowly opening sweetness of the root. The skill isn’t so much in the flavours as the proportions, just the right balance of tartness and pulsey nubble.
A marinated rump steak sandwich, unapologetically oozing and carnal, was manly enough to make a Guardian hack feel guilty and burnt Basque cheesecake made Deirdre want to have sex, which is not something you hear often in Farringdon. Wines, ça va sans dire, are varied, well-chosen and extremely well priced, as indeed is the whole menu.
It’s hard not to feel sentimental, if not downright regretful in The Eagle’s unchanged dining room. The walls are the same faded green, the wooden tables a little bit more battered and the Nineties seem such innocent, faraway times, when there was still a thrill to be had in a basil leaf and the end of history hadn’t been announced — prematurely. Still, it’s survived and The Eagle, unlike the rest of us, might yet have its best days to come.
The Eagle Farringdon, 159 Farringdon Road London EC1R 3AL
This article is taken from the December-January 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
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