London's East End is well known for the variety of its cuisine. Tim Richards set out to find some of the best.
Can Eating London's new East End Food Tour deliver on its promise of "London's best bacon sandwich"?
M Magazine's editor has charged me with finding out if this is so, and, dear reader, I am equal to the challenge. I feel, in fact, that all my previous visits to Britain have been mere training for the bacon sandwich that lies ahead.
It's quite literally the best dessert I've ever tasted.Tim Richards
And it's a corker of a sandwich. As our small group takes its seats around a long table within the ex-bank interior of St John Bread & Wine, our young guide Ollie lovingly describes the bacon.
Soaked in brine for weeks, then cured in salt and sugar before being smoked, it sounds impressive. Served within fresh white bread, with the addition of a house-made apple-based ketchup, it is spectacular to eat. I'm calling it now – this is indeed London's best.
But that could be a problem. This is the first of eight stops in a compact area around Spitalfields Market. Can the rest of the tour possibly match the standard of the very first tasting?
Luckily, it does. Our second halt is at The English Restaurant, which celebrates the nation's much-derided culinary traditions by serving classic dishes made with top-quality ingredients.
Its bread and butter pudding does not disappoint. Traditionally a poor man's dish made from stale bread, this 21st century version is served in a small circular bowl with a jug of custard on the side. It's intensely sweet, and reminiscent of a creme brulee with its caramelised top.
As we walk on, Ollie points out items of interest between tastings: the historic signage of a paper bag manufacturer, a Victorian women's refuge, a 1902 Jewish soup kitchen, and the location where one of Jack the Ripper's victims was found.
At Artillery Passage we learn about King Henry VIII's shooting range in this area, and on nearby Gun Street we see a window bricked up in response to the 18th century window tax.
This social history component of the tour is very welcome, broadening our knowledge of the East End beyond its tasty food. It also, thankfully, gives us time to digest.
At Spitalfields Market we taste the excellent products of a French cheesemaker who established his first British outlet here.
Then it's on to Poppies, for the classic dish of fish and chips. Its interior is a garish tribute to the East End's past. Around the walls are photos of famous entertainers from the past, along with examples of rhyming slang.
While we tuck into fish and chips with a side of mushy peas (something which baffles the North Americans in the group), Ollie tells us of the invention of the dish 150 years ago by Jewish immigrant Joseph Malin.
We're served more history as we walk along Wilkes Street, once the home of French silk weavers fleeing religious persecution; before arriving at The Pride of Spitalfields for a liquid course.
It's a classic British pub, full of locals getting together for a beer, and here we taste both an ale and a cider. Over a drink, the group unwinds and we chat about beverages in our own countries. Apparently cider in the USA can be a non-alcoholic drink, I learn – a trap for the unwary.
On to Brick Lane, the most atmospheric street we've yet encountered, crowded as it is with curry houses. It's also marked by an attractive modern minaret attached to a mosque, in an old building which had been a church and a synagogue in the past.
It's evidence of a postwar demographic shift, in which Bangladeshi migrants moved into the area. The street is now synonymous with curry, and we get to try the best, sampling chicken, lamb and vegetable curries within a recent winner of the Taste Brick Lane awards. They're spicy but with subtle, complex flavours.
My fellow tour members are clearly starting to fill up, even getting a little sleepy. But we still have two more stops.
The first, Beigel Bake, is another reminder of the Jewish heritage of the East End. Ollie emerges from its 24/7 shopfront bearing hot bagels filled with corned beef, hot English mustard and pickle. They're delicious.
"We're about to enter deepest darkest Hipsterville," says our guide, leading us headlong into Shoreditch, pointing out some monumental street art along the way.
Finally, we're seated at Pizza East, located in the industrial vastness of a former biscuit factory.
We're not here for pizza, however – this is dessert. As Ollie describes the history of salted caramel, from its humble beginnings in France, the waiters bring forth the Salted Caramel Tart.
With a perfect balance of caramel, sea salt, chocolate ganache, almonds and creme fraiche, it's quite literally the best dessert I've ever tasted. With a pot of tea, it's the perfect end to a food tour that's been as diverse as the East End itself.
Qantas (qantas.com.au) flies from Melbourne to London from $1900 return.
Ibis London Blackfriars, 49 Blackfriars Rd, Southwark, ibis.com
The Athenaeum, 116 Piccadilly, Mayfair, athenaeumhotel.com
Eating London's East End Food Tour departs at 10am and 10.45am from Monday to Saturday. Adults £65, children £40-£50. Bookings essential via eatinglondontours.co.uk.