Is it possible to see a country through the prism of a pie? To detect a flavour of the nation in a steak and kidney filling? Obviously, How to Eat – the series that identifies how best to eat our favourite dishes – does not think so. A steak and kidney pie is just a pie. But is it?
Invariably hailed as an English classic, as if our fondness for steak and kidney in rich gravy stops hard at the Welsh or Scottish borders, it is clearly a bakery product with chauvinistic baggage. If that pushy ownership implies an inferiority complex on the part of the English, it is borne out by the insecure language used to celebrate this icon.
England claims the steak and kidney pie, but is simultaneously embarrassed by its lack of continental sophistication – an absence of cream, spice, oil or zest. As such, the country tends to lean into the pie’s lumpen reputation, discussing it in gutsy, jovial terms that take a stubborn pride in its rugged simplicity. It is hymned in big, butch riffs about no-nonsense English cooking; a pie rendered literally and metaphorically bovine.
This all smacks of getting your excuses in early. This is English food. You wouldn’t understand it. No one likes us. We don’t care. And we all know where that mardy mentality gets you.
England’s struggle to take itself or its food seriously in a mature, self-confident way must fascinate psychologists and baffle observers who have fallen for British food without any of that psychodrama. Indeed, from Iraqi pathologists to Luigi Amaduzzi, a former Italian ambassador to the UK (and self-certified lover of “real” food), the steak and kidney pie has its international admirers.
The meat should give way under your fork like a sickly 17th-century dauphin collapsing on to a chaise longue
Let us not talk proprietarily of the steak and kidney pie as a symbol of English exceptionalism. Like most enduring regional foods, it is a curious accident of geography, farming, weather, commerce and industry that, when done well – its flavours fathoms deep, like descending into a meat-based Mariana Trench – could easily win over converts globally. Even in France.
It is not a bafflingly English product, but our humble contribution to a notional compendium of the world’s great foods. But how do you eat one?
Note: this HTE will not consider the steak and kidney pudding. This former suet superstar – now living reclusively, its legend kept alive by a handful of dedicated fans (chefs with a Gary Rhodes book or two) – is a distinct entity worthy of its own entry.
Immediately, this raises a fierce argument that has torn apart friends and families: should it be fully encased, or will a pastry lid suffice? In 2013, HTE was unequivocal: “A pub pie without a bottom is like casual sex. It might feel great after six pints, but, ultimately, it’s baseless, unsatisfying and leaves everyone feeling cheap.”
However, a steak and kidney pie is the exception that proves the rule. Other star flavours in the pie firmament – meat and potato, cheese and onion, balti, (awful, old) minced beef – are all complete meals (carbs + filling + dab of sauce = balanced diet), designed for on-the-go or handheld football consumption. By necessity, such pies require a bottom.
But steak and kidney is a pie apart. Its meaty filling is so majestic that the pastry is a pleasant foil rather than central to its enjoyment. It is too posh for a pie barm, too sloppy to be portable.
Instead, it is a lodestar around which a full meal arranges itself. The boldly savoury, offally intensity of an A-grade steak and kidney pie demands a number of accompaniments: some sort of brassica, to cut that flavour density, and chips, to mop up beer-spiked gravy. Therefore, it is advantageous for its gravy to run free – emptied out of a small dish in the pub or portioned from a huge tray at home – rather than to be contained in a wraparound pastry casing.
True, while enjoying your “substantial meal” in the pub, that whole removing-the-lid-then-transferring-your-pot-pie-to-the-plate is awkward, particularly if the kitchen has sealed the pastry. Lacking asbestos gloves, you must patiently allow the thermonuclear pot to cool to a safe handling temperature and then clumsily decant its contents.
Would HTE eat a full-casing steak and kidney pie? Of course. Wrap steak and kidney pie mix in an old flannel and HTE would give it a go. But a full casing is inessential, if not indeed an active hindrance. (Fact: Nigel Slater is a top-crust man.)
As for the topping of what militants will dismiss as a pot of stew in a hat, puff pastry edges it (great crisp, lush sodden in gravy), but all-butter shortcrust (hold the lard) is a delight in its own right. HTE would eat either.
Use braising or stewing steak with a decent marbling (chuck, skirt etc) and make sure the kidneys remain plump, yielding nuggets rather than morphing into pencil rubbers. Carefully remove the sinewy cores, too: they are often overlooked. Chestnut mushrooms are an optional extra. Crucially, all these ingredients must be diced into fork-friendly, bite-size chunks to ease eating and help flavours amalgamate. The meat, particularly, must be diced to a dimension that means it begins to fall apart meltingly within the pie. Overcome by the oven heat, it should give way under your fork like a sickly 17th-century dauphin collapsing on to a chaise longue.
A little onion is welcome, but other vegetables should not darken your pie mix. Resist the urge to add mustard or horseradish, too. Including a divisive, potentially domineering ingredient such as that is high-handed at best and disastrous if clumsily deployed. Mustard is a personal choice. It should not be dictated by tyrannical cooks.
Rather than narrowing your pie’s parameters with heat, concentrate on deepening its flavour by, at each stage of this laborious process, deglazing frying pans with red wine and intensifying the braising liquid-cum-gravy with more wine, Worcestershire sauce, garlic, miso, ketchup, tomato puree, soy sauce, dark beer, thyme, bay leaves, smoked oysters et al. Although you needn’t go the whole truffle hog, à la Simon Hopkinson.
A steak and kidney pie should be self-saucing, releasing just enough gravy in such volume and thickness that it pools invitingly on, rather than swamps, the plate. You should not need extra gravy, but if it is required you must use reduced runoff from the pie-filling stage. Adding separately made gravy to a pie meal, only to discover it is limply inferior to or clangs badly with the pie’s own lubricant, is a gastronomic buzz-kill.
Peripheral if not pointless. In flavour terms, this meal has enough layers and angles as is. At a push, ketchup’s vinegary twang might add a further dimension, a dab of mustard an exhilarating afterburner thrust to each mouthful.
That much-loved British double act, pie and mash, is often billed above pie and chips, but here chips take the headline slot. Their glassy, crunchy textural contrast and the sub-meal marriage of chips and gravy makes them the ideal sidekick to a steak and kidney pie. Other forms of potato are available, but boiled (school dinners), baked (a meal in itself) or dauphinoise (OTT) are all wrong.
This richly savoury object also requires sharp intervention to offset its sheer meaty abundance of flavour. That does not mean acidity. Gravy is frequently ruined by the vinegary residue of pickled cabbage or beetroot. In this case, think instead of jagged mineral and earthy vegetal flavours. This is a rare occasion when steamed, unbuttered dark-green vegetables – cabbage, kale, broccoli, spinach, sprouts – shine in their natural state. Their relative spikiness (see also: a knotty tangle of mustardy watercress) is preferable to the cloying sweetness of honey-roasted vegetables or baked beans. Peas sit in a hinterland between the two.
If eating shop-bought pie, then whenever you feel your spirit sagging. Comfort food is a glib, overused term, but, after a draining day, a steak and kidney pie offers a soft landing. Making a pie from scratch, meanwhile, is the perfect therapeutic undertaking for a rain-lashed Sunday.
Forget the archetypal pie tower: stacked on mash foundations in a wide, shallow bowl, a gravy moat pooling below. Here, the chips and the greens require considerable cutlery interaction. You need to be able to get at your food easily and that necessitates using a flat, white, old-school dinner plate.
Ideally, a modern take on a traditional British bitter. Marble Brewery’s laconically named Manchester Bitter is a great example: a beer of considerable malty depth, but hip to modern hopping in a way that puts a zesty spring in its step. Failing that, a rye- or oat-spiked IPA would suit, that unusual mash-mix giving such beers greater muscular body.
So, steak and kidney pie: how do you eat yours?