There’s nothing quite so charming, fortifying and so unapologetically British than a generously filled pie. It’s a rudimentary meal, but one we should be incredibly proud of.
As any pie loving Briton should know, the pastry can be the making or breaking of a pie. It should have a certain level of density, but be giving and somewhat brittle when attacked. There should certainly be pastry completely encapsulating the filling. The lazy approach to pies - where the filling is dropped into a naked dish with a pastry lid slapped on top - is a downright disgrace.
“A good pie filling should be substantial and deliver a contrast in textures,” explains Mike Cook, Arbitrator Judge of The Great Taste Awards. So a pie that contains chunks of tender meat in silky gravy with the bite of a few vegetables is admirable, if not something to celebrate.
A very British dish
Pies have long been an important part of British cuisine. Back in 1776 when Hannah Glasse wrote The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, she included a recipe for Ox cheek pie that would sit proudly on the menu of any modern British restaurant or gastro pub today. Her giblet pie just a few pages away, not so much.
Isabella Beeton’s timeless Book of Household Management from 1861 is one of the most iconic in British food writing, and includes no fewer than twenty-one different recipes for savoury pies. Her basic ‘forcemeat for cold savoury pies’ recipe lays a well-seasoned foundation for any inspired practitioner of the pie.
In 1963 when Ambrose Heath penned the two-part Britain’s Favourite Recipes, it’s interesting to note that the cover image shows a large pie with a beautiful golden crust. Pies play in integral role in both books, none so revered and loved by the nation than steak and kidney; arguably the best British pie filling there is.
An everyman food
The pie has always been a universally accepted staple of the British diet, a food that bridges the gap between social classes. Pie and mash shops were once omnipresent throughout London and those institutions still plying a trade in the East End today continue to provide sustenance and restoration to the working individual. Meanwhile the pie has continually graced the tables of the nation's finest establishments. Charles Francatelli, chief cook to Queen Victoria, includes a whole collection of lavish pies in his 1845 The Modern Cook, which no doubt made their way onto the dinner tables of Buckingham Palace.
Pieminister are a contemporary British pie company based in the West Country and it’s of little surprise when they explain their best seller. “Though our Heidi pie, which is vegetarian, is massively popular, steak and ale takes the best-seller spot. It’s the most traditional and I guess the one people feel most comfortable with,” explains Jon Simon, one of Pieminister’s founders. “What’s so great about pies, is that they are the ultimate in convenience food, you can eat them on the go, but they fit just as comfortably plated up in a restaurant.”
Whilst our eating habits in Britain are somewhat erratic (from our rather perverse obsession with the Mediterranean to the current love affair with street food native to any country but that of our own), one thing has remained consistently popular. The pie has stood the test of time and continues to stand proud as one of Britain’s best-loved foods - all that’s left to decide is what makes the perfect filling.
What’s your favourite pie - steak and kidney or something more adventurous?