Somewhere along the line, gentrification became a dirty word, linked to climbing property prices and coffee shops that smell of Ribena and baby vomit. Whether or not the person sitting next to you at a dinner party thinks gentrification is a good thing is a good yard-stick for discerning their political allegiance (yes: free market, chances are they’re a Tory; no: government intervention, probably votes Labour. You wouldn’t be sitting next to a Lib Dem at a dinner party, they’re an endangered species).
Hackney is in the process of being well and truly gentrified, the middle classes moving in en mass and dressing it in brogues and a tweed jacket. It wasn’t always so: in the early 20th century, it was an industrial hub – the word “petrol” was apparently coined by a company based there – and factory workers flocked to its overcrowded slum housing. After the war, the industry moved further out, leaving it with scrap-dealers, car breakers and lots of empty warehouses. Its inhabitants would have eaten things like pig’s ears, trotters and bone marrow, because it was cheap and didn’t involve throwing away half an animal.
Flash forward 60 years and it isn’t only places that are being gentrified: so are the peripheral bits of a pig’s anatomy. Body parts a starving vagrant would once have turned his nose up at are now the height of sophistication. Trotters are in. So are pigs ears (which is a risky strategy for a restaurant: the headlines write themselves). It’s nothing new, of course: oysters used to be used to pad out meat pies until some clever marketing exec came up with a better strategy.
This brings us nicely to The Empress, the reopened gastropub on a street in Hackney that is no stranger to yummy-mummies and artisan fairy cakes. It’s typical of the nouveau East End, its décor placing it somewhere between a New York loft and a Victorian primary school. Dogs catching Frisbees are painted on the walls. Jesus is break-dancing in the corner. It is populated with exactly the kind of people you would expect to find here; all studiously dorky jumpers and the ruddy cheeks of the perennially well fed.
The Empress – which dropped the “of India” from its name after its recent overhaul – brought in Elliott Lidstone, former head chef of the Michelin starred L’ortolan in Berkshire, to run the kitchen. And, for the price he’s charging, he’s done very well.
The pig’s ears are a bit of a gimmick, consisting mostly of fried fat, which is just as well, really, as they’d have been inedible otherwise. The snails and bone marrow, though, were delicious; succulent and well cooked, better than I’ve eaten in restaurants in France.
There is something quite undignified about the sight of a whole, roasted quail, its charred legs all akimbo, pointing sadly towards the ceiling. If you order it as a main, you’ll find two of them, intertwined in a final embrace, like the preserved victims of Mount Vesuvius you can see in Pompeii. It was served bloody as hell but – provided you’re not squeamish – there was some succulent meat to tweezer from the carcass. The mackerel salad was less evocative but tasty nonetheless.
The cheesecake was a high point, rounding off a meal that was hit and miss but certainly never dull. And, whilst Hackney may be getting gentrified, at £25 a person (without wine), the Empress is still firmly rooted at the affordable end of the scale.
It’s probably not quite worth navigating the circuitous network of public transport it takes to get to Hackney, but if you’re in the area, pop in and order some pig’s ears while you chew over the absurd circularity of it all.
First published in City A.M.