Stew with a lid

Pies.

You are here for deprogramming. Everything you thought you knew about pies is wrong. Listen to me – listen carefully: even if it has no pastry base, it is still a pie.

You might have a pref­er­ence for a pie with a pas­try base.

That might be how your Mum made pies, or how the spe­cial­i­ty pie of your home­town is made.

But none of that means ‘stew with a lid’ is any­thing oth­er than a legit­i­mate pie.

Ah, ‘stew with a lid’ or ‘casse­role with lid’ – one of those off-the-peg wit­ti­cisms that’s been blud­geoned to death through rep­e­ti­tion in the past decade.

I can’t work out where it orig­i­nat­ed but as with ‘Nev­er drink in a pub with a flat roof’ I’d guess it was with a come­di­an on a pan­el show, or in an obser­va­tion­al stand-up act.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, as well as becom­ing a tired gag, it’s also become the basis of a kind of only-half-jok­ing dog­ma. ‘That’s not a pie LOL!’ the fanat­ics say on Twit­ter and Face­book, giv­ing both bar­rels to TV chefs who fail to com­ply with stan­dards of cor­rect­ness.

In 2017, TV cook Mary Berry made a pota­to, cheese and leek pie on her pro­gramme Mary Berry Every­day. Instead of lin­ing the pie dish with pas­try, she put the fill­ing direct­ly into the dish, then put a strip of pas­try around the rim to which she fixed the soon-to-be pie-crust before bak­ing.

Peo­ple, as they say­ing goes, ‘took to Twit­ter’ to berate the then 81-year-old.

Twitter screengrab: "That's not a pie".

After all, what does Mary Berry know about bak­ing?

The tone is often one of weari­ness with what our soci­ety has become, the com­ing of the base­less pie yet anoth­er symp­tom of the decay of moral stan­dards. ‘Since when…’ these com­plaints some­times begin.

I’ve even come across one chap who seems to think PIE is an abbre­vi­a­tion for ‘prod­uct is encased’ and that this con­cludes the debate. (See also: port out, star­board home.)

The thing is, all these peo­ple are just wrong. It’s not a mat­ter of opin­ion – they are sim­ply incor­rect.

Look at any his­toric British cook­book and you’ll find numer­ous recipes for pies with pas­try bases and pies with­out.

Jane Grigson’s Eng­lish Food, first pub­lished in 1974, col­lects region­al recipes from fam­i­ly cook­books and obscure vol­umes. It gives us sev­er­al base­less ‘stew with a lid’ pies includ­ing rab­bit pie, Cor­nish char­ter pie based on an 1883 recipe, chick­en and leek pie from Wales and Dart­mouth pie from an 1880s recipe.

Nell Heaton’s sim­i­lar com­pendi­um of Tra­di­tion­al Recipes of the British Isles from 1951 – a by-prod­uct of the Fes­ti­val of Britain – has, for exam­ple, Shrop­shire pie:

For the fill­ing use young rab­bit and far pork sea­soned with pep­per, salt and sweet herbs. Add a grat­ing of nut­meg, the chopped liv­er of rab­bits, chopped onion and apple and a few cur­rants. Add 1 pint broth, then cov­er with pas­try made with 2 lb flour, 1.5 lb but­ter or lard or mixed, the yolks of 3 eggs and a lit­tle water to make a fair­ly stiff paste. Bake in a quick oven for one and a half hours.

And Mrs Bee­ton, for good­ness sake, has this:

Beeton pie recipe with no base.

I think a few things have caused this weird dog­ma­tis­ing of the def­i­n­i­tion.

First, there’s a reac­tion against mass cater­ing. When I was a teenage chain pub wait­er, I saw at unfor­tu­nate close hand how ‘our deli­cious home­made steak-and-kid­ney pie with rich gravy’ came into being.

  • Heat plas­tic pouch of pre-cooked brown goop.
  • Snip cor­ner and squeeze it into the pie dish.
  • Take pas­try toupee from warm­ing shelf and plonk on top.
  • Serve.

Look back at Berry, Grig­son, Heaton and Bee­ton – pas­try base or not, pie tops and fill­ing are cooked togeth­er. The fill­ing flavours the pas­try which helps to cook the fill­ing by, uh, act­ing as a lid under which it can stew.

The prob­lem with the mass-cater­ing pie of the 1990s was that it didn’t feel like a com­plete dish. The cut cor­ners were all too vis­i­ble. The stew and the lid were not as one.

Sec­ond­ly, as region­al vari­a­tions have dis­ap­peared and home-cook­ing has dwin­dled, the mean­ing of pie has nar­rowed.

For many peo­ple, it has become only the enclosed hand­ful in a tin­foil tray you get at the chip­py or at a foot­ball match, or that you find float­ing in gravy on a stur­dy pie-and-mash-shop plate.

Those can be great – at their best, a won­der of mass pro­duc­tion, inte­grat­ed and sat­is­fy­ing, mag­i­cal­ly portable – but they’re only one take.

If you want to play the game of indus­tri­al vs. arti­sanal (maybe you don’t – who has the ener­gy?) then a base­less pie, cooked at fam­i­ly size and dished up with a serv­ing spoon around the din­ing table, is arguably more authen­tic.

Final­ly, I think there might be a north v. south thing going on.

Of Grigson’s pie recipes, those with a base tend to be north­ern, such as Cheshire pork and apple pie and West­mor­land lamb pie.

Elis­a­beth Orsini’s 1981 The Book of Pies seems to back this the­o­ry up: for exam­ple, Leices­ter­shire pork pie has a pas­try base, Devon­shire pork pie doesn’t.

Pies are com­pli­cat­ed, they con­tain mul­ti­tudes –  mul­ti­tudes stewed beneath pas­try lids.

11 thoughts on “Stew with a lid”

  1. What’s this?

    This isn’t a blog post about beer.

    Have you both gone mad?

    I’ve come here to read about beer, not pies. I can’t see any insight into beer in what you’ve writ­ten above. Dis­grace­ful.

    If you want to post a blog about pies, then do it on a blog about pies, not a blog about beer.

  2. Being seri­ous, I think you have put your fin­ger on the root of the prob­lem. It aris­es from the ten­den­cy of mod­ern mass cater­ing to put a puff pas­try lid as an after­thought on a casse­role. This is some­thing dif­fer­ent in kind from a dish where the ingre­di­ents are cooked togeth­er with the lid, allow­ing the juices to flow into the pas­try.

  3. Noth­ing bet­ter than chip­ping gravy-enfused, crunchy short­crust pas­try from the edges of the pie dish. Noth­ing worse than a load of stodge hid­ing the lack of fill­ing in a full pas­try pie.

    Pies have been syn­ony­mous with pints and pubs for rather a long time so why not write about them? I await your dis­course on pub snacks, with maybe a com­par­i­son between crafty ones like wasabi peas and bor­ing brown pork scratch­ings.

  4. Far be it fro me to chal­lenge the north-south thing but being born in Man­ches­ter and then liv­ing in Black­pool until uni­ver­si­ty, I can assure you that my moth­er’s excel­lent meat and pota­to pies were cooked and then served in the same huge pot with just a pasty top. They were one of the rea­sons for going home in the vaca­tion. When I was at school, two pies were cooked, one (in a slight­ly small­er dish) was for yours tru­ly who, being fam­ished, dined before dad returned from work. Then mum & dad ate lat­er from the larg­er pot. I sure miss those pies.

    1. John – my Lan­cas­tri­an mum makes meat and pota­to pie the same way! I would­n’t say it’s an absolute, but maybe a ten­den­cy.

      1. At the risk of adding noth­ing but “me too”, that is also how I remem­ber home-cooked child­hood meat and pota­to pie in Man­ches­ter. But with an impor­tant addi­tion: the top should be a thick suet crust for max­i­mum bee­fi­ness. Com­pare and con­trast with the meat and pota­to pies sold in bak­ers and chip­pies which were ful­ly encased in pas­try. These played a sup­port­ing role to the “meat” pie (in the chip­py, usu­al­ly from Hol­lands). Think pork pie, but with unspec­i­fied meat (gen­er­al­ly a beef and pork mix) and served hot. The full pas­try case was designed to dis­charge a stream of scald­ing hot liquor down your shirt at first bite.

  5. Fur­ther on region­al vari­a­tions: once, shop­ping for lunch at a (now-van­ished) pork butcher’s, I decid­ed to vary my usu­al one-meat-and-pota­to one-steak order by try­ing some­thing I’d nev­er had before, a ‘hot pot’ pie. On the way home I attempt­ed to prise the pie out of its foil tray, only to dis­cov­er that it had no pas­try base, just a lid. This made it fair­ly chal­leng­ing to eat, with­out cut­lery, while walk­ing down the street, but I gave it a go. I was nev­er tempt­ed by a ‘hot pot’ again, though.

  6. A few dis­tinc­tions need to be need. Where fill­ing is cooked sep­a­rate­ly and a pas­try, puff or oth­er, is placed on top after and quick­ly baked, to my mind it’s not real­ly a pie. It’s an expe­di­ent for the pro­fes­sion­al kitchen or at home. It works well and in many cas­es may be indis­tin­guish­able from the real thing, but is more a makeshift, IMO.

    Where made, how­ev­er, as out­lined by cooks going back cen­turies, it is legit­i­mate as sim­ply reduc­ing the starch com­po­nent. The Amer­i­can chick­en pot pie, which derives from British mod­els, is exact­ly this.

    If you use, though, a hot water pas­try, that is for the the Mow­bray pies, Scotch mut­ton pie and that sort of dish, I think the full cas­ing is need­ed. There may be exam­ples of peo­ple mak­ing them with­out the full Mon­ty but it would­n’t be usu­al, I think.

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