The pie’s the thing. Forgive my expropriation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet’s reference to “the play” in those terms. But pies, as people seem to say on social media, are currently becoming a “thing”.
BBC Radio 4’s Food Programme recently devoted a whole episode to a feature on pies. Next, London’s Evening Standard announced that leading London pastry chef Calum Franklin is now offering a five-course pie-tasting menu at the Holborn Dining Room. There’s no doubt: a perennial favourite, a staple for centuries, the pie is currently, and not for the first time, a “thing”.
It’s a comforting kind of food. There is something warming and wholesome about an all-in-one dish. Like a hotpot where all the ingredients are added gradually to a single vessel and slowly cooked into a rich stew, a pie locks all the flavours of its composite elements within a crispy pastry crust.
It’s tempting to present pie as peasant food that’s become gentrified in the manner of the Tuscan bread soup ribbolita or Brazilian pig’s-trotter stew feijoada: think of the traditional pastie, the Cornish miner’s packed lunch where even the wrapping was edible.
But the pie is classless: it’s not poverty food in the manner of my other examples. Baked in a poor household it might have concealed gristle in pastry, the meagre flesh bulked out with potato: but the rich have also relished a pie, albeit one stuffed with all manner of meat and fowl, since time immemorial. Thus the lord in his hall and the poor man in his hovel valued their very different pies in equal measure, each satisfied in his turn.
Pies are versatile. Hot and cold, meat or veg or both, vegan even. The possibilities are endless, and a pork, game or multi-meat/fowl pie offers, to my mind, the best possible basis for a cold lunch with salads and a crusty loaf.
The current resurgence in pie-interest may appear southern-based, but The Food Programme rightly travelled to Barnsley and Leeds to interview devotees and bakers alike, people for whom pie is not so much a staple food (though it is one) as a religion.
I know this to be true. Two close friends, former colleagues as it happens, are living examples. One spent several years in Yorkshire during his career, where he learned to love pies. Retired to Bristol, the best thing that’s happened to him is the emergence of the Pieminister chain of pie-and-beer pubs, founded in that city but steadily colonising (according to its website) Nottingham, Manchester and Leeds.
My other friend made a powerful statement in a large open-plan office where healthy-minded colleagues (mostly women, in truth) decided they’d share a communal fruit-bowl. In response, the Barnsley-born pie-fan furnished a pie-bowl. People flocked to the office to witness this short-lived phenomenon: but I noticed the blokes generally helped themselves to the pie-bowl.
The pie is not exclusively a northern inspiration, however. There’s a powerful Midlands tradition, too: not merely in the East (Melton Mowbray, home of the classic pork pie), but also in the West. From my time there I recall a marvellously eccentric pub in Tipton, Mad O’Rourke’s Pie Factory. Its speciality was an immense Desperate Dan Cow Pie replete with pastry horns, a homage to the confections cooked for that legendary Beano character by his Aunt Aggie. Its current website describes it thus: Steak & kidney + a variety of seasonal vegetables all slowly cooked together in our famous gravy. Baked with a pastry lid + pastry horns. All 4lb comes to your reinforced table.
I love a good pie. But it must be a real one. A recent online petition to ban caterers from applying the term pie to those sad individual bowlfuls of stew with puff-pastry hats attracted 6,000 votes, too few to demand a parliamentary debate: but the intent was right. A pie is a pie, cooked within or under its crust.
When I eat out, I confess I find the offer of a real steak/beef and ale pie, with or without kidney, almost irresistible. As the landlord of Milfield’s Red Lion will testify. Oops!