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Meet the pastry perfectionists reinventing the great British pie

Publisher - Great British Food Awards
published by

NatashaLS

Mar 11, 2020
8 minutes to read
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Pies have been popular throughout British history but now a new wave of chefs are reinventing them as miniature culinary masterpieces. Helen Graves meets the pastry perfectionists

Pies are such a staple of British cuisine you’d be forgiven for thinking we invented them; a slice of pork pie with piccalilli at Christmas, a puffy steak and ale at the local pub or a warm pasty at the seaside, hastily gulped beneath circling seagulls.

It was actually the Egyptians who first made something resembling a pie, and the Romans who popularised it in England; by medieval times, people in Britain were making pies as we’d recognise them today, although the crust was more a tough casing used to protect the meat than an appetising pastry.

Matthew O’Callaghan, organiser of the British Pie Awards, says the popularity of this everyman food is soaring. “We now eat over a billion pounds worth of pies every year in the UK and I think that’s partly due to economic uncertainty – a pie can stretch ingredients,” he explains. “This tradition goes back to the old days when the lord of the manor was eating venison and the poor underlings were eating the entrails – called ‘umbles’ – wrapped in pastry. That’s where the expression ‘to eat humble pie’ comes from.”

MAKING THE FAMILIAR EXTRA SPECIAL

In recent years chefs have been reimagining recipes with an attention to detail previously lavished on more intricate pastry work, such as the French pate en croute. At Lancashire’s The Parker’s Arms, award-winning, self trained chef Stosie Madi is making pies using only the most local, carefully sourced ingredients. “Pies are very important to the Lancashire diet,” she explains.

“When we took over [the pub] we researched a lot of recipes that were traditional to the area and modernised them, so we bring in whole animals and break them down to use every part of the carcass. We render all the fat down and use that to make the pastry. Whatever filling is in the pie should also mirror the pie shell.”

This focus on quality is distinguishing new wave pies from many of their historical counterparts. “We do a curried hogget pie,” says Stosie, “because sheep are very prevalent here…a breed of hardy sheep with great depth of flavour. What’s important is that the farmer ages my carcasses for me – a lot of butchers will only sell carcasses in the 7 days after the animal has been slaughtered. My farmer hangs mine for at least 14 days, which gives it a much more pronounced flavour.”

The Pie Room at Holborn Dining Room
The Pie Room at Holborn Dining Room

At London’s Holborn Dining Room, situated within the 100 year old Rosewood Hotel, head chef Calum Franklin became so interested in pies he built a whole room dedicated to them. “We found this old pie tin in the basement and that’s what started it all off,” he explains. He now employs five staff in The Pie Room and sells between 1000-1500 pies per week.

THE PERFECT PORK PIE

“We wanted to really dig into the old knowledge and relearn traditional techniques. Even now, four years later, we’re just scratching the surface because it’s 600 years of British history. The pie has been a persistent feature of British culture.” Calum sells five different pies at The Pie Room, along with sausage rolls and scotch eggs.

“Holborn Dining Room’s head chef Calum Franklin became so interested in pies he built a whole room dedicated to them”

He’s particularly proud of his pork pie, and dedicates the same attention to sourcing ingredients as Stosie. “For so long chefs have stuck to the very traditional pork pie…for ours we thought let’s pull apart all the different elements, whether it was the quality of the pastry or the different cuts inside.”

The pie is labour intensive but worth the effort. “The mix takes the longest because it’s hand cut,” Calum explains. “It has shoulder, bacon, hock, lardo, and it’s the hand cut texture that makes it. That solid mass of meat you often get in a pork pie isn’t very nice. The jelly is often made from chicken stock, and it’s fairly bland and insipid, I never understood it. So for ours we roast pork bones, make a beautiful broth then turn that into a jelly so it’s more like a gravy when you’re eating it.”

The Curry Mutton Pie at The Pie Room
The Curry Mutton Pie at The Pie Room

It’s not just meat fillings that are capturing peoples’ attention. however. Neil Broomfield runs The Great North Pie Co. and won Supreme Champion at the British Pie Awards in 2015. His most popular pie is a Lancashire cheese and onion: “It’s our signature and it’s what got our business going.” he says.

“It’s just Lancashire cheese and onion – we don’t use any potato or bechamel to fill it out.” He now sells thousands of them every week. Stosie has found her Lancashire cheese and potato pie served with a cheese sauce has the same appeal: “It’s our bestseller. It’s basically a gratin dauphinois put into a lovely light flaky pastry.”

So what is it about pie that’s so appealing? “It’s very comforting,” says Stosie, “if you think about it, there’s a pie in every culture because everyone loves a warm braise of some kind, encased in carbohydrates.” This revival in nostalgic foods is something we’ve seen happening up and down the country in recent years; consider the trend for chocolate bars reimagined as desserts, or the ubiquitous ‘posh cheese toastie’. A young foodie generation hooked on shows like The Great British Bake Off is willing to spend disposable income on higher quality produce.

This is important, argues Stosie: “your 23-30-somethings are very conscious of what they eat and where their food comes from, whereas 50-60 year-olds tend to want more value for money.”

THE COMFORT FACTOR

If you can take a familiar product and make it special, you’re onto a winner! “We charge between £17-19 for a pie so it’s not a cheap item and we’re happy about that – it’s a full meal, it comes with pomme puree or chips and vegetables and it’s a very labour intensive job. When people eat it they realise that yes it’s pie but they’ve not had a pie that tastes quite like it before. It’s special.”

For Calum, the boom in popularity of pies isn’t surprising when considered in historical context. “Pies have come in and out of fashion over the last 600 years. There are times when it’s purely a peasant food but if you shoot forwards 100 years it’s served at royal banquets. I think we’ve had one of those dips where there wasn’t the level that chefs are pushing them to now. It’s something that’s quite easy to elevate because you’ve got a filling that you can put some beautiful ingredients into, you’ve got the blank canvas of the pastry, and there’s the design – it’s down to the creativity of the chef.”

The Chicken, Girolle & xxx at The Pie Room
The Chicken, Girolle & Tarragon Pie at The Pie Room

PICTURE PERFECT PIES

Instagrammer Jo Harrington knows only too well the power of visual appeal. Her account @jojoromancer has 87K followers and features photos of intricately decorated pies covered with tiny pastry daisies, perfect lattices and even individual scrabble letters, somehow still perfectly delineated postbake.

Despite these striking effects, she thinks the modern appeal of the pie has much to do with the pace of modern life. “We are living in a time when people are feeling that life moves too fast. Making a pie is a great exercise in mindfulness and it allows for the maker to get creative, which is so satisfying,” she says.

The genius of the pie lies in its accessibility and the fact that it can be (to use modern cheffy parlance) ‘elevated’ yet still recognisable as the comfort food everyone wants to eat. Most Brits can relate to the thrill of slicing into burnished pastry to reveal steaming filling, and pie judge Matthew O’Callaghan thinks that nowhere does it better. “We Brits may not have invented the pie but we’ve taken it to an art which has far surpassed anywhere else.” Pass the gravy.

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