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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