Friday, 11 January 2013

A Short Treatise on Pies

This is a piece I wrote late last year, but never posted. I was reminded of it yesterday when I read an article in the Guardian entitled 'How to Make the Perfect Steak and Ale Pie'. This article is part of a series by the normally-admirable Felicity Cloake; what she does is take a bunch of recipes from well-known cooking folks, makes them all and then figures out which is the best (and it's frequently an amalgam of several recipes). It's a terrific idea, and I have used many of her 'perfect' recipes for various things. However, with her 'pie' recipe, she has been seriously misled by the likes of The Hairy Bikers, Valentine Warner and Hugh Fearnly-Whittingstall. All of the recipes she makes are for Things That Are Not Pies. See below; all will be explained...

For many food-related items in the UK, the latter part of the twentieth century saw a tremendous rise in industrialised production, with a corresponding fall in quality. Pies were no exception, and many people who grew up with some of the horrible products on the market at that time have a pretty dim view of the beasts. Fortunately, things have improved somewhat, and pies have been enjoying a bit of a revival. They are no longer looked down on as cheap, grotty products for the proles, although you don't have to look hard to find that kind of rubbish if you really don't care about what you eat.

So, what is a pie? According to the Melton Mowbray Pie Association, promoters of the annual British Pie Awards, 'a pie is deemed to be a filling totally encased in pastry'.

Now that's a fairly tight definition, but it would also allow things like Beef Wellington to be called pies, and lattice-topped fruit pies to be sent to the naughty corner. I understand why they defined it that way, and I more or less agree, because it keeps out Things That Are Not Pies: Pizzas; Flans; Quiches; Shepherd's Pie; Cottage Pie; and the dreaded bastard-son-of-pie favoured by many a pub landlord, the ceramic bowl full of slop with a slice of bought-in puff pastry sitting on top.

I have no doubt whatsoever that the MMPA chose their definition of a pie because of the rival UK pie competition, British Pie Week, sponsored by Jus-Rol Pastry, where Things That Are Not Pies are regularly favoured with awards.

The most popular savoury pie fillings are probably Steak & Kidney, Chicken & Mushroom and Minced Beef & Onion (the item after the '&' is normally there to provide a bit of bulk from something that's cheaper than meat). Unlike Spanish attempts at pies, the meat and vegetable is cooked in a tasty gravy or sauce. You can put pretty much anything you like in a pie, but stew-based fillings tend to be the most successful.

There are no hard and fast rules about what accompaniments should be served with a savoury pie, nor even about what should be in it, but if you visit any of the traditional pie shops in London's East End, your pie will be served with mashed potatoes, possibly peas (mushy or not), and 'liquor'. Now, this is a bit weird - it's basically a fishy parsley sauce and is a hangover from the days when the Thames was swarming with eels and most of them ended up in pies. The liquor was the water the eels were cooked in. These days, eels in the Thames are rarer than hen's teeth, and pie fillings have drifted to the meaty side of things, but the liquor continues.

You may also come across pies served with chips or french fries (and note, there is a significant difference between these things), and maybe with mixed vegetables and/or salad. If you're very lucky, you may be offered extra gravy.

I should mention at this point that not all pies are designed to be eaten hot. The main one in the 'eat-me-cold' category is the pork pie. This contains minced/chopped pork surrounded by a savoury jelly and encased in a fairly hard pastry. Traditionally, these pies are not made in moulds, but the pastry base is 'raised' around a wooden former called a 'dolly'. The jelly is poured in through a hole in the lid after the pie has been baked.

I actually took part in the British Pie Awards a couple of years ago: took a red-eye from Madrid, watched in dismay as airport security confiscated my gel-filled chilling packs, and arrived at Melton Mowbray in the English Midlands with warm and squishy pies that impressed nobody.

I had expected this pleasant market town that claims to have invented the Pork Pie to be in full fête, but none of the people I spoke to had ever heard of the Pie Awards. I'd also been expecting the place to be swarming with fellow pie-makers, and it possibly was, but you can only go up to so many strangers and ask them if they make pies before Social Services start taking an interest. The next day was Judgment Day, and while the public and the Gods of the Art of Pie were welcome to wander around the outskirts of the judging area, there really wasn't much to do until the results were announced at about 5pm.

I retired to one of the pubs adjoining the huge church where the awards were going on (and the vicar had blessed the pies, which I thought was rather enlightened of him), taking a bar-stool directly opposite the kitchen door. As I settled myself, one of the two oldish men in the kitchen put on his coat and announced he was off to pick up his car from the garage, leaving the other one fuming and grumbling out loud 'I'll feckin' killim, leavin' me on my own at lunchtime!' over and over.

I noticed they had Steak & Kidney Pie on the menu, and eavesdropped with interest when someone approached the barmaid and asked about it.
'Does it have pastry top and bottom?'
Aha, I though, a fellow competitor.
'Ooh yes,' said the barmaid, 'it's lovely.'

So he ordered one, and I watched in jaw-dropping, eye-rolling, tearing-my-hair-out horror as the grumbling madman in the kitchen assembled this utter travesty of a pie. He removed two frozen puff-pastry 'pie-shells' from the freezer, defrosted them in the microwave and popped them under a grille to brown. Meanwhile he heated up the S & K filling, put french fries and salad on a plate, and then built the 'pie' - one crust on the bottom, some filling, second crust on the top. I have never in my entire life seen anything so bizarre. Neither, I imagine, had the poor customer who'd ordered it, probably wouldn't be able to bring himself to eat it, but would still have to pay over a tenner for it. And this sacrilege was carried out on the very day of judgment of the British Pie Awards.

But I digress. You get the idea that I am passionate about pies. And so, I hope, are you. May the Pi be with you.