Hopping to Leap Day Tapas in Southwark

Recent events

On 29th February 2024, the venue for our evening was Mar I Terra Restaurant in Gambia Street, not far from Southwark tube station in the west of the borough.

Those Liverymen more attuned to the mechanics of the City of London will know of its many trading exchanges ranging from the London Stock Exchange to the London Metals Exchange. Fewer will be aware of the once famous Hop Exchange just south of London Bridge. It is the story of brewing and hop factoring, which eventually leads us to the Worshipful Company of Plumbers’ Leap Day Spanish tapas evening.

Mar I Terra is situated in a backstreet area hidden by numerous railway viaducts carrying the multitude of railway lines converging in the area. On arrival, the building, which was tucked alongside one of the many railway viaducts, had all the appearance of having once been a backstreet public house. This was soon confirmed by the drayman’s drop from the pavement outside. Indeed, inside the property retained the bar, but tables were set for restaurant diners.

Upstairs had been reserved for the Plumbers, who were escorted to their places by Steward Melville Gumbs. Subsequent investigation established that the property had indeed been a Courage public house called the Hop Pole. More on this shortly. The twenty-eight in the party were seated at a table with two sprigs.

As is customary throughout much of Spain, the main courses were preceded by delicate slices of charcuterie, which included chorizo and ham, as well as olives and a bread, olive oil and balsamic vinegar dip. Once the first tapas was delivered to the table, the remaining tapes arrived in quick succession. Plumbers were treated to mini spiced sausages, green chilli peppers, chicken-flavoured croquettes, anchovies, battered squid rings, minced meat balls and much more with lashings of garlic flavouring. The Spanish omelette was the best imaginable. A choice of Spanish red or white house wines was made available and drunk quite liberally throughout the evening.

Proceedings were concluded by a speech by the Master, David Adams, who reflected upon both the meaning and significance of Leap Day and leap years. He regaled all present with tales and customs of old, including a law introduced by Queen Margaret of Scotland, which permitted ladies to propose marriage on leap days with the intended husbands having to pay a fine for refusal.

He also informed everyone of the mathematics behind leap years, which are intended to correct the divergence which arises between the societal calendar and the astronomical calendar. Different cultures have their own calendar systems. Here in the West, we have long since moved away from the Julian calendar and adopted the Gregorian one. If the Gregorian calendar fell short of the astronomical one by precise six hours, then adopting a leap day every four years would resolve the problem. Unfortunately, the difference is slightly less than six hours. The Gregorian calendar seeks to address this by omitting the leap year three times in every four centuries. It does this by omitting all those years divisible by 100 except those divisible by 400. This approach is not completely accurate, but we will not venture into that one.

The evening was a most enjoyable one and a great introduction to the Spanish tapas without the need to venture to the cafés around the Mercat de Olivar in Palma de Mallorca or those lining Las Ramblas in Barcelona. A hearty thanks is due to Senior Steward Philippa Stary for identifying the venue and to Steward Melville Gumbs for organising this event.

Returning to the matter of the venue. Previously, it had been the Hop Pole public house. The name of the pub is of great significance to the area. This is because Southwark had been the main centre for hop trading for centuries until EEC rules in the 1970s enabled the importation of hops from producers in Europe. The grandest Victorian building in Southwark is the former hop exchange in Borough high street near the famous market. To this day, one can see the iconic Le May hop factors’ art nouveau building opposite the hop exchange. This famous hop factoring business had been operated by a partnership of the four Le May brothers, two of whom had attended the same school as the writer. Le May’s were one of many such hop factors in the vicinity. Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” is the oldest extant text which refers to the trade. Kent had been one of the main hop-growing areas in the country and at the time of Chaucer, the nearby London Bridge was the only direct route into the city. Hopping had been associated with brewing in the Low Countries and was probably unknown in England prior to Chaucer. Not doubt, the tapas was also unknown at the time.

Southwark was also a major centre of brewing for centuries. This may well partly have been due to the local hop trade, but was probably mostly influenced by Southwark having been under the influence of the bishops of Winchester rather than the City of London at the time. Several of the large inns found in courtyards off Borough high street would have had their own breweries for home brewing. However, larger concerns also flourished in the vicinity once common brewers had become established. Amongst these was Courage, which had been founded by John Courage when he purchased an existing concern in 1787 adjacent to what is now the southern approach to Tower Bridge. Members of the Courage family soon start to appear in the City of London apprenticeship records in connection with various trades. John Courage had been a Scots ship broker with Aberdonian roots. A body of literature suggests that slightly prior, the Courage family had been French Huguenots, who had fled from France to Scotland following the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Therefore, one wonders whether the Courage trademark cockerel had its roots in the cockerel which had been a symbol of France. The Courage brewery eventually merged with Barclay, Perkins & Co Ltd to become Courage & Barclay Limited, whereupon the combined entity became based at Park Street, only half a mile distant from the Mar i Terra Restaurant. It can be ascertained that the public house was a free house a century ago before becoming a Courage tied premises, but closing in 1997. Since 1999, it has been reinvented as a Spanish restaurant and is now in popular demand.

Past Steward Dr. Malvern Tipping