2001 Pies: A Pastry Odyssey

This is not glamourous. It’s not exciting and it’s really not the sort of thing a city-dwelling girl who owns mostly nice shoes and has all her own credit cards should admit to but it’s time to vocalise the passion because, after all, ridicule is nothing to be scared of.

I absolutely love pies.

See? Now I’ve said that you’re thinking ‘Fatty Fatty Pie Eater’ aren’t you? You are, aren’t you? It’s OK, you needn’t feel bad. It’s simply a knee-jerk reaction rooted in playground mockery of the following sort:

Who ate all the pies?

Got hit with the ugly stick on the way out of the pie shop.

Likes a pie.

Hilarious though these erudite jibes are, they have inadvertently taken the focus away from the pavement-pulverisers amongst us and tarred the innocent pie with a lard-laden brush. Let’s be honest, your average pie does contain a couple more calories than say, your average garden salad, this is an acknowledged nutritional fact backed up by pie scientists (pientists?). Pies are, like all comfort food-stuffs, essentially bad for you. No one finishes work on a Friday after a harrowing week and thinks ‘Sod it all, I’m having a salad!’ Salads are not comforting. They are cold and spikey and leafy whereas pies are crumbly and warm and satisfying. Anyway, I’m not advocating merrily troughing pies on a daily basis. Those would be the actions of a Mad.

So, back to my pie-passion. I wasn’t raised in the kind of household where pies were regularly consumed. My mum used to make the occasional pie if people were coming round but it would generally be sweet and more often than not, open-topped. That’s where I first learned about ‘blind baking’ which involves covering a pastry base in a dish with a layer of dried-out beans to weigh it down and protect it. I found those beans fascinating as a child. They would sit, hard and colourful in their jar until they were forced to endure extreme temperatures fulfilling their destiny as guardians of the sensitive layer of pastry, then cooled and poured back in the jar to await their next searing adventure. Mind you, I didn’t have many friends then and there’s only so long you can spend playing swingball with yourself.

My grandmother used to make amazing pies, mainly savoury ones. As a child I would have rather given away my entire Barbie collection to my brother and watch him decapitate each one of them than eat kidneys. However, granny could bung the pig-organ in a pastry casing along with some steak and gravy and I just yummed it up.

We used to take our summer holidays at the same farm in Cornwall every year. Enter, the variation on a theme: Pasty Obsession. The woman who ran the farm used to make pasties for dinner once a week. Her method was the traditional Cornish one, involving huge chunks of steak meat and potatoes and pastry the thickness and consistency of a house brick. There wasn’t a straight line to be found on that woman, but you could have used her lips as a ruler when we had the gaul to ask for gravy. Admittedly I still adored these parcels of joy but by God they were dry. It would be been easier to chew your way out of a coal shed than eat one without gravy (unless you’re a horny-handed son of toil eating one on a tractor, in which case pulling a small, portable gravy boat out of your barbour jacket pocket is just stupid).

Doris (or Mrs Pastry Hands as I wish I’d had the nous to call her at the time as they were always, always cold*) had a unique method of pasty-making. She would tailor them to each guest’s shoe size. Fine for a dainty-footed nine year old like me but dashed challenging if you’re a hefty size fourteen like my dad. His pasty used to hang over the sides of the plate. I was jealous.
It sounds obvious but it really is the pastry that makes it for me. I love the crumbliness of short, the flaky crispness of filo, the lightness of puff and the softness of choux. However, there are certain ground rules or, to be less totalitarian about it, observations I would like to set out regarding the word ‘pie’ and what it really means to me:

1) Shepherd’s Pie, Cottage Pie, Fish Pie: OK, so technically these are pies in that they are a ‘filling’ covered by a ‘lid’. But where is the excitement or satisfaction in a lid of mashed potato? Where’s the craftsmanship? The investment of cold-handed time? The crisp, satisfying layer disguising the delicious mystery within? Boiled root vegetables smeared over mince with a fork does not constitue an honest-to-goodness pie. No matter what Delia Smith might say.

2) Dessert Pie (e.g. the flan, tart or tartlet): OK so the base is at least pastry, this is a step closer than the jokers listed above. However, without the lid to cut into, it’s like opening what you think is a new jar of coffee, only to find that some bastard’s got there before you and robbed you of the teaspoon-through-gold-foil pleasure. Another disappointment to add to the myriad of small disappointments that make up Life. Although on this note I should point out I am a huge fan of banoffee pie however the correct method of making it calls for a biscuit not pastry base. Another fallacy uncovered.

3) Lids Alone: Read your gastro-pub menu carefully, fellow pastry-lover or you may be caught out by this one. Does the menu describe the steak and ale pie as having a ‘pastry lid’? If it does, order at your peril, for this loose-bottomed prankster is bound to ruin your luncheon. Is it a thrifty way of saving millions on expensive pastry ingredients? Are you actually supposed to eat/keep the ceramic dish? Or are you just in the establishment of a deceitful, pub-owning git? What’s the point of pouring stew into a ceramic dish, slinging a layer of pastry down on top and serving it with peas next to it on a plate? What an absolute load of tossycock. Go for the fish and chips in beer batter. I would.

4) Fray Bentos Pie-in-a-Can: Just don’t. Ever. Seriously.

5) The Australian ‘Pie Floater’: A perfectly good meat pie, needlessly immersed in pea soup and decorated with ketchup. I mean honestly, what the fuck?

6) Chip Shop Pies: God these are good. I mean, really good. My first job was working in a chip shop and I hated it. I hated the heat and the permeating smell and the fact that I had to scrape squashed chips out of the treads of my shoes every evening. But I loved the pies. They served a chicken and mushroom that could make a confirmed pie-obsessive weep vinegary tears. Complete buggers to wrap, especially with a portion of large chips but I could forgive them. Basically, your average chip shop pie or indeed any pie purchased in proper pie form from a supermarket or similar ticks all the boxes. Gorgeous, rich, oozing fillings encased in crumbly, slightly sweet, short pastry. Ultimate comfort food? Yes, my friend. Oh yes.

*You have to have cold hands to successfully make pastry or it goes all crumbly and sticks to your rolling pin, prompting you to fling the entire lot in the bin and sob behind a locked door while your dinner guests sip sherry in the front room and pretend not to notice.

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3 thoughts on “2001 Pies: A Pastry Odyssey

  1. Oh gawd, I’m now craving the best chippie pie ever’ the Gelders Mince Pie.

    Only available in the North East! Next time I go home, I’m going to get one.

  2. I got a touch of indigestion reading that. The good ‘just had a nice pie’ type though. And the phrase ‘yummed it up’ will stay with me forever, hopefully.

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