Its origins are older than you think. And, for a while, it looked like its days were numbered. But the pie is bouncing back, as a new wave of inventive and passionate pie makers find. Ally Mitchell digs in.
Simply sublime on a cold day, the pastry-topped pie is a linchpin of traditional British cuisine. Together with fish and chips, roast beef and the bacon butty, us Brits have a loving predisposition towards pie.
From Scotch pies to Cornish pasties, pies say as much about who we are, and what we’re made of, as our dialects and customs. But that’s not prevented us from meting out a cruel and shocking punishment to our most reliable food delivery systems. The mystery meat and hollowed-out horrors of the pies that line the supermarket freezer cabinet are a pale shadow of the pies we were weaned on. The pies that fuelled the fires of the industrial revolution. The pies we took down the pit.
The pies that built Britain.
Now, however, there is something stirring. ‘Glam-pies’ from restaurants Pieminister, Pie & Ale and Great North Pie Co (left and below) have lifted the lid on the mass-produced, soulless steak pies, and filled us with renewed hope – not to mention a range of hitherto unheard of flavours such as black squid and chilli, or wild boar and chorizo.
The British pie has been on quite a journey since it arrived on our shores in the twelfth century. The meagre filling was literally buried inside a casing, known, alarmingly, as a ‘coffyn’. Within, all horrors lurked. It was the perfect place to bury bad meat, disguised with a handful of spices like nutmeg and pepper.
But its roots are found in Ancient Egypt, with the first evidence of pies surfacing around 2500BC. The Egyptians made a pastry from oats or wheat to encase a sweet honey filling.
Although enjoyed and adored by other countries, including the United States and Australia, Sam Lacey, reviewer from the blog Pierate, believes that Britain has a fondness for the dish that surpases the rest. It’s why the British Pie Awards and British Pie Week are such firm favourites on the foodie calendar.
“Something that does unite us nationally is that, everywhere I go, people love pie. On the continent they don’t share our love. In Britain, it really is something we identify with,” he says.
British pie peaked in popularity during the Victorian era due to cheap cuts and local ingredients, particularly the Thames’ bountiful supply of eels. Not always containing the meat they claimed (as demonstrated so chillingly in Sweeney Todd), the rich filling was kept safe inside its pastry wrapping. Pie and mash houses were a typical London feature, serving pie with mash and eel liquor. Are these modern pie restaurants an imitation of the pie and mash houses, or is something else happening here?
To the award-winning Great North Pie Co. in Manchester, it’s about building on tradition. An occasional visitor to London’s remaining pie and mash houses, founder Neil Broomfield saw the attraction in pie and in regional flavours in particular.
Showcasing the Northwest’s suppliers and flavours, the company uses the best local ingredients. Neil’s appreciation of food is poured whole-heartedly into each bake.
“I love pies. I’d never made a pie in my life before I started making pies at home. I’d make my visitors a cheese and onion pie, using Lancashire cheese, local butter, taking something that’s quite simple and trying to make one of the best versions of it. It was a way of welcoming people to the North, I suppose.”
As Supreme Champion of the British Pie Awards in 2015, Great North Pie Co. has the ultimate seal of approval. “We love food and that’s the thing, I think we just make pies a bit more interesting,” Neil says.
For Pie & Ale’s Rob Ashpitel the restaurant started as a compliment to the company’s initial venture, Bakerie, the perfectly on-point bread and wine restaurant in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. Pairing pie with its sidekick ale was always going to be a winner, and the restaurant offers a range of pie and ale flavours from around the world. It’s the perfect food pairing experience.
With palates and diets constantly changing there are always new culinary avenues to explore. “By predominantly serving only pies it gives us great scope to do this whilst also keeping classics available, this keeps our menu fresh and innovative,” says Rob.
Influenced by the Australian’s love for the no-nonsense pie supper, Pieminister founders Jon Simon and Tristan Hogg helped kickstart the pie revival back in 2003. Australian pie cafes are huge tourist attractions, cornerstones of their community, and an obligatory post-match (or post pub) hangout.
There, pies are sold with a mound of mash stacked on top, and drenched in gravy. These ‘floaters’ were the inspiration behind Pieminister’s innovative chain of restaurants, cafes and pubs serving pies across Britain, including venues in Leeds and Manchester.
They offer British ingredients cooked in a light pastry casing, with the mash and gravy ‘floater’ dining experience. With a rueful laugh Jon claims their most successful pie is the steak and ale, otherwise known as the Moo; maybe a surprise to some due to their impressive menu. Likewise, in Pie & Ale the favourite is the Steak & Yippee Ale, and for The Great North Pie Co. it’s the regional best of Lancashire Cheese and Onion.
So, in summary, we’re still a little traditional when it comes to getting our fill. It’s hardly surprising, there’s a lot of history to shake off. A portable consumable to Victorians and the Cornish, the pie was our first fast food. And, thanks to a new breed of baker, they’re back – carried in cardboard boxes from Glastonbury to the terraces of the Premier League.
And now for the really difficult question – just what is the future of pie? “Honestly, if I knew the answer to that I’d tell you,” laughs Neil. One thing seems certain, though, pie is not going anywhere. “The future of pie is limitless,” says Rob, adding that opportunities vary from gluten-free and vegetarian options, snacking products to the ultra-luxurious game pies with aged port.
These pie restaurants are swiftly re-colonising our high streets, and staking their claim on menus again, thanks to the tenacity of the bakers who never stopped believing. And, by mixing inventiveness with tradition, the future looks good. The future looks pie shaped.
“Food fads will come and go, but there’s always going to be room for pie,” says Jon.
THE PIE POLICE
Next time you’re unsure whether to buy Mr Kipling’s Bramley Apple Pies or Aldi’s Specially Selected brand, help is at hand.
Pierate is a pie review blog offering reviews on any pie for sale. Started in 2009 between friends Sam, Rob and Tim, the site has escalated into becoming the pie industry’s essential read. The three have now been on TV as pie experts and judges to the British and Scotch Pie Awards. Having reviewed over five hundred pies, they know what they’re talking about. With their seven c’s – colour, consistency, capacity, chewiness, cheapness, content and condition – the team are analytical in their aim to discover hidden pie gems across the country and abroad. They are firm when it comes to what defines a pie. ‘It has to be fully encased in pastry, that’s the British Pie Awards definition,’ says Sam, ‘we’re stricter and say it should also have a lid made from a separate piece of pastry.’ So be aware that next time you’re served a ‘pie’ in a casserole dish with pastry merely laid on top. You deserve better.
SEVEN NEW PIES TO TRY
The modern pie is diversifying our conceptions of the dish – move over chicken and mushroom, here are some more unusual flavours the pie experts have crafted.
The Great North Pie Co
Smoked eel, Horseradish and Apple
Thai Massaman Curry with Peanuts
Pie & Ale
Crocodile, Camel, Mouflon or Wild Boar
Pie Hole in Leeds
Jerk Chicken Curry
Morcambe FC, Chef Graham Aimson (winner of the British Pie Awards 2014)
Pork, Irn-Bru and Chilli
Nice Pie (champion of the British Pie Awards 2014)
Kangaroo Pie and Squirrel Pie
Cauliflower Cheese Pie with Chestnut Crumble