Coronavirus Diary 81: Visiting London’s oldest Beigel Shop

For many if not most people, life is well on the way to being back to normal, in deed from what I can tell many peoples lives were barely impacted at all aside for a few weeks. For myself and many others in the UK however, we are effectively unable to work and I’m about to enter my 22nd month without any form of government support whatsoever.

The sheer boredom if nothing else is hard to comprehend… waking at 3 or 4am and bored stiff by 5 or 6am. There is only so much you can do in your rather chilly and damp home and similarly, how many times can you walk the same 2 or 3 routes and not see a single soul for weeks on end? Options without income are limited to say the least.

A few years ago I wrote a series of posts that were something of a bucket list of travel related sights and I have got no further to visiting any of them now than I had then. 100 Places I Want To See Before I die (100-91). As others eat out, go on modest weekend breaks or something a little further, my world has seriously contracted to that even going to get a sandwich is a treat both in terms of travelling to a destination but also being able to eat something a little different though very modest.

I’d been waiting a few months for an excuse to visit Brick Lane, and the perfect excuse presented itself… go now or jump off a cliff out of sheer boredom. Fortunately, I often get free travel, not officially of course but there are kindly bus drivers and tube station staff if one takes the time to get to know people.

A 2 hour each way journey to buy a snack might seem a bit of a laborious way to spend the day but it offers the chance to see out of a different window, see real people and maybe even have a real conversation with someone. Also free heating is a boon when like today, half of your house is only 8 degrees C / (46F).

These days Brick Lane is full of artisan coffee shops, vintage boutiques and curry houses but for a century or so, it was a very Jewish area before the community there moved to more suburban areas. Two of the last relics of the strong Jewish presence in Brick Lane can be found with two beigel shops. Beigel Bake (the white one) and the Beigel Shop (the yellow one) are two of the last reminders of a time when the street signs were written in Yiddish, the mosque was a Synagogue (before that a church) and kosher butchers and restaurants were in abundance.

These days both Beigel outlets are extremely popular places that are open 24 hours a day and have counted everyone from the infamous London gangsters The Krays to Hollywood stars amongst their clientele.

In recent years Beigel Bake has perhaps become the most lauded of the two shops but for me it is never about popularity so I wanted to visit the oldest Beigel shop in London and probably the U.K.

Whilst Americans and indeed British supermarket like to use the word bagel, in these parts the more authentic spelling is used having come from Yiddish and possibly stems from the German word, buegel, which means stirrup, because of the similarity in shape. Other possible sources include bougal, a German word for ring or beigen, a Yiddish word for bend. Beigel is pronounced differently than Bagel so get your order off to a good start by at least trying to pronounce it correctly!

Bother Beigel shops produce 2-3,000 beigels every day. These are boiled, baked, cooled, sliced and filled before being sold to a regular stream of hungry customers in paper bags.

The first time I was in Whitechapel was in the 1990’s and in those days beigels would often have a filling of salmon and cream cheese. Jump forward today and though there are almost limitless options, really if you want to have an authentic beigel then you should go for the deliciously succulent salt beef with pickle and a liberal splashing of spicy English mustard.

I don’t normally go up the top end of Brick Lane as it’s a little of my tour routes, it felt both the same but also different. More bohemian and artsy, no doubt due to encroaching dangerously close to the trendy Shoreditch.

The weather was a brilliant crisp winters day, very cold but with a bright blue sky and long shadows in the low winter sun. When I arrived at Beigel Shop there was a small filming crew outside.

I know that some people regularly travel over 100 miles each way to both this beigel shop and the neighbouring one 3 shops up the road so my 2 hour each way journey was likely not too special. As I entered the shop, a man was just carrying a bag of 30 freshly baked beigels and the smell got my appetite going.

I gave the lady my order and she asked if I wanted pickles and mustard as not everyone likes them. I told her that I wanted everything going and within a minute or so I had my freshly made hot bagel wrapped in a bag and ready to go.

I did have every intention of taking the beigel home with me or at least finding somewhere to sit down and enjoy it. Brick Lane has lots of things going for it but it’s not the best place to go and find a quiet spot; there are plenty but its whether you’d want to go down them!

I’d never had salted beef before and I’d heard about how nice it is for years and with it smelling so nice and being such a cold day, I walked about 3 shopfronts before I decided I was going to eat it there and then or at least very nearby and very soon.

I have to say it was entirely delicious and one of the nicest things I’ve ever tasted. It was all I could do to avoid going to order another one straight away though it was extremely filling… it just tasted that nice. I will definitely back there sooner than later.

As I was in the neighbourhood I treated myself at what I think is the purveyor of the finest hot chocolate drinks in the world Dark Sugars – The Best Hot Chocolate in London and made my way back to the tube station for the long ride home.

The weather was so perfect for photography that I took more than a few and found myself chatting to a talented New York interior designer who was being commissioned to refurbish a home of two very famous artists that live behind the doorway I was photographing… I’ve never met them yet but perhaps one day. It was amazing to talk to someone about architecture and buildings and history and culture for a few minutes.

For a short while I was both physically and mentally fulfilled.

About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including several #1 sellers. I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. I run my private tours company with one tour stated by the leading travel website as being with the #1 authentic London Experience. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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5 Responses to Coronavirus Diary 81: Visiting London’s oldest Beigel Shop

  1. That sandwich looks awesome! Do they serve lox there?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. djdfr says:

    We have learned to make what we call bagels because they are not easily found in Brittany. I feel your pain about this situation. We are deprived of many things also. I hope you will be able to find a source of income.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bagels are one of the few things I have never tried making. I read about the process whilst writing this blog post. What a shame you can’t purchase them locally but they do say home-made baking is the best. You’d think that with well known reputation for French bread that they might make the odd one, I guess they have a broad enough range as it is. As it happens I had some French style bread yesterday!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Snooping around a Charnel House (House of the dead) in Spitalfields, London. | Stephen Liddell

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