Stew with a lid

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.

Pub Life: Pork Pie

Illustration: pork pie.

At 5:45 the crowd is getting restless — where is the pork pie? Where are the cubes of cheese? The nibbles and snacks?

Of course they’re a courtesy, not a right, so nobody can complain, even if they do it jokingly. But, still, when you’ve come to expect it and it isn’t there, you get restless, and start thinking about buying a bag of crisps or, worse, going home for tea.

There is a stir. The herald first, mustard and serviettes, then the thing itself, golden and stout, cut into eighths on a plate.

It has to go down in front of somebody and the somebodies it goes down in front of feign disinterest. A regular heckles, “Alright for some.” Temptation is too much: after about five seconds, someone shrugs and, takes a slice, might as well, then a second to pass to a friend.

The pie is already looking ravaged, crust crumbling and jelly spilling.

Panic sets in and chairs scrape, everyone rushing but trying to look as if they’re not.

Taking three slices, one regular offers a narration to explain his motives: “Best get in before it’s all gone, one for each of us.”

The entire pie has disappeared before the first bowl of cheese has appeared.

The pub itself seems to sigh with contentment. No need to rush away, stay for another, maybe two. Sunday night saved.

Lamb and Kriek Pie

I noticed that the Pembury Tavern in Hackney, East London (my favourite pub) was serving Lamb and Kriek Pie today. I didn’t try it, but I’ve been pondering other pie/beer combinations.

Obviously, there’s the classic steak and ale – I’ve found Hook Norton Old Hooky a great ale to use for this, as it’s on the malty side. I used ESB once and it was a touch too bitter.

But what beer to go with chicken in a pie filling? Something not too bitter, light in colour, perhaps citrusy… a German weissbier? Chicken and weissbier pie could work.

How about for the veggies (like Boak)? Lentil, carrot and onion cooked off in Koelsch might work. Or mushrooms in mild… as long as a completely black filling doesn’t make the pie look too unappetising.