The first restaurant guide, spiced up for today

MANY GUIDES to dining out in London are published every year, some of them even trustworthy. One of the best happens to be also the first.

The Epicure’s Almanac by a hack writer called Ralph Rylance (1782-1834) tells you where the best East End eateries were, what delights could be found in the street markets, seasonal availability of certain foods and tidbits on the role of Romanies, Jews and people from other ethnic minorities in the business of eating.

Rylance’s guide was published in 1815, but despite reporting on an impressive 650 establishments, it was a commercial flop. Now Janet Ing Freeman, a scholar of great thoroughness, has made the book available to modern readers in a hardback published by the British Library. As you would expect with such an institution, the indexing, usually one of the first casualties of modern often-slipshod publishing, is exemplary.

The Epicure’s Almanac is a wonderful addition to the bookshelves of anyone intrigued by the story of this great city. Freeman has done wide-ranging research on the locations mentioned. For example, with Rylance’s review of the first Indian restaurant, at 34 George Street in the West End, she includes a note on what is now on the site (an office block).

For a short time, wrote Rylance, “Mohammed, a native of Asia, opened a house for the purpose of giving dinners in the Hindustanée (sic) style”. Fancy, Londoners lapping up curries 200 years ago. A room was set aside in which patrons could smoke “oriental herbs” (among them a tobacco called Chilm) in hookahs.

Though it was not in Hackney, such a place would have tempted this writer to take a horse-drawn cab out beyond his comfort zone of the borough but, alas, it quickly went bankrupt. Freeman, being the researcher she is, offers some theories of why, and consoles us with the information that a council plaque marks the site.

How thrilling it is, too, to pass an on-trend pub in Upper Street such as The Bull and know a little of what it was like two centuries ago when Rylance took his sizeable belly in there to be stuffed with food and drink. Again, Freeman adds to the reader’s pleasure with a brief run-through of the pub’s names over the decades.

She reveals that not far away there has been a King’s Head in Islington since 1592. The diarist Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) had cakes and ale inside what is today a pub-theatre.

The book has a fine section on the markets visited by Rylance, including Spitalfields, established by royal licence in 1682, doomed to be “developed” into what 21st-century City moneymovers think a market should be.

Rylance’s strolls through Brick Lane show it was as fascinating to foodies in Regency times as now: “a sort of market street”, with eating-houses and tripe shops, makers of sugar-sticks and peppermint drops, Banbury cakes and eels pies, often munched by the masses watching public executions.

Talking of executions, the Blind Beggar in Whitechapel Road, said by Rylance to be “a very good house of entertainment”, is where one of the Kray family, murdered a man. The Krays were Cockney thugs who, for a short period after the last war, had limited success in their attempt to emulate American gangsters.

Rylance writes about Bishopsgate, Wapping and the Docks and about fish sold in a market at Duke’s Place (now Creechurch Place), Aldgate, that may have been presented in a battered oil-fried style popular with Jews and said by some historians to be the ancestor of today’s fish and chips.

Rylance also looks into Shoreditch, but is one of the few Hackney districts he mentions, perhaps because in those days the borough was still rural. Gentlemen would have had to travel into the City and West End for alimentary enjoyment.

Oddly enough, it is only in the last 30 years that good dining-out has become possible in Hackney districts beyond Shoreditch, mostly in Stoke Newington.

Culinary change happens slowly, it seems: once the world had made it clear it was not ready for Rylance’s publishing breakthrough, he barely made it into his fifties before he died. His end came not because of excessive eating: he just faded away in a London mental asylum, possibly because of manic depression.

Why not raise a glass of good ale over a tasty curry to this pioneer’s memory?

David Altheer 231112

* The Epicure’s Almanac, by Ralph Rylance (edited by Janet Ing Freeman), British Library, £30.

* Puzzled by the picture at top? It shows the dining guide next to a dinner gong. Ding-dong!

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