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.