From one pie lover to another...
I’ve never been able to tell if it’s the smell or the delicate golden colour on top of a freshly baked pie that has always had me hooked – maybe it’s a combination of the two. Or perhaps it’s the hidden mystery of the flavour concealed within that captures the imagination and makes a pie hard to resist.
Sub-standard pies became for many years “the symbol of stodgy service station fare”, says BBC Radio 4’s Food Programme. "The life of pie" examines how chefs and cooks alike are rediscovering the joys of a lovingly made pastry containing top quality ingredients.
The humble pie now comes in all shapes, flavours and forms, some far superior to the meat pies (minced or diced beef with gravy, onions or cheese) of my childhood in New Zealand. They are celebrated as part of “Kiwiana” culture, and are also treated to iconic status in Australian cuisine. (I say humble, but New Zealanders are incredibly proud of their pies – as evidenced by over 4,400 entries to the annual NZ Supreme Pie Awards.)
The passion for pie was brought to New Zealand from its English settlers: “Our English housewife must be skilful in pastry, and know how and in what manner to bake all sorts of meat,” wrote Gervase Markham in the English Housewife in 1615. At this time the pie was even used as the centrepiece of great tables - occasionally containing (hilariously) live frogs or blackbirds.
But the British pie goes as far back as the Middle Ages, though one of the primary purposes of pastry was simply to contain and protect the meat, according to food writer Harold McGee. Inedible pastry cases used as cooking vessels were called ‘coffyns’. And from that grim beginning grew a love of pastry and what it could do.
McGee says the word pie developed in medieval English and was the equivalent of the French word pâté – a word used to describe both blends of meat and types of pastry (as in pâté sablée).
“Pie meant a dish of any sort, meat, fish, vegetable or fruit, enclosed in pastry,” McGee says, and the word was not to do with dough, but rather the use of odds and ends. Quite appropriate as the word pie was borrowed from a bird that makes a comfortable nest from whatever’s to hand – the magpie.
Throwing any old odds and ends is perhaps not the best way to make a pie, although some of the flavours I’ve tried over the years show surprising and unsurprising combinations can work – Thai green curry, tandoori chicken and chilli crab spring to mind.
Getting the right thickness to your pastry and ensuring it cooks perfectly, are key to creating the perfect pie. The crucial tip for the best crust is to keep both filling and pastry cold prior to baking.
There are as many varieties of pastry as there are fillings – from rough puff to cream cheese to rich shortcrust, polenta and oat pastries. (This gluten-free pastry is great for savoury pies, too.)
As to fillings, I love a traditional chicken and leek and it’s on that’s much loved elsewhere too - this year the supreme winner of the British Pie Awards contained chicken, ham, mushroom and buttered leeks under suet pastry.
While debate has raged for years over whether pasties are pies, I take a rather inclusive approach and say anything with pastry involved is of the same family. From the politically controversial Cornish pasty in the south to the Scottish bridie – each has their own character that epitomises the versatility of the pie, and demonstrates its consistent appeal. In particular I love empanadas and veggie ricotta parcels.
But I have to say, in the sweet pie arena, the Americans always win; after all they use it as a benchmark of their culture in the phrase, "As American as apple pie”. But they also top the pie charts with pumpkin pie, key lime pie, and the blowsy, billowing lemon meringue pie.
No one can resist a sweet piece of pie (not even Agent Cooper) – although perhaps not following a pie as a main course. I'm sure you know can imagine the result – an all-too real exemplification of that modern idiom: “Who ate all the pies?”
Do you have any pie making tips? Are you a top crust person, or do you insist on both top and bottom? Do pasties count?