The real English pie is en­joy­ing a 21st-cen­tury come­back, writes Tom Nor­ring­ton-Davies

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence -

WHEN is it hip to be square? When you are a pie, of course. On a win­try Fri­day lunchtime, the pie con­ces­sion is eas­ily the most pop­u­lar counter in Sel­fridges food halls in Lon­don. The queue is in se­ri­ous dan­ger of snaking its way on to the street. Not that I mind. I’m a ter­ri­ble menu dawdler and the staff won’t take kindly to any um­ming or ah­hing. So, de­spite the ag­o­nis­ingly mouth­wa­ter­ing smells com­ing from the counter, I’m glad of a few min­utes to make a choice.

Steak and ale is an ob­vi­ous one, but there is lamb and rose­mary, mush­room and as­para­gus, and salmon and broc­coli, too. The broc­coli pie is ap­par­ently per­fect for any­one need­ing a detox. You may laugh, but the cou­ple be­hind me are clutch­ing smooth­ies. There isn’t a pint or an ash­tray in sight.

A few years ago, Lon­don’s last re­main­ing pie-and-mash out­fits were like min­imu­se­ums to the bad old days. Pie wasn’t naughty enough to com­pete with fish and chips or burger bars. It was too frumpy to take on any­thing as ex­otic as con­veyer-belt sushi. It was put out to pas­ture in school can­teens and freezer sec­tions where, as with most in­sti­tu­tion­alised foods, the prod­ucts of this won­der­fully an­cient craft suf­fered all kinds of abuse. In­dus­trial pas­try and ques­tion­able fill­ings don’t do any­thing for one’s im­age. Even Sweeney Todd would have baulked at pie by the num­bers.

The crazy thing is that while pies went out of fash­ion, all sorts of near rel­a­tives came into favour. Pizza is Ital­ian for pie. In­dian samosas, Thai spring rolls, Mid­dle East­ern boreks and even flouncy old quiches are pies. And they all share the same his­toric roots.

Pas­try, what­ever form it takes, was once a ves­sel for food more than any­thing else. It kept the flies and dirt out of feu­dal take­aways, which were pre­pared in the small hours and eaten in the fields. One rem­nant of th­ese ed­i­ble hold-alls is the Cor­nish pastie. The twid­dly bits that tra­di­tion­ally ap­pear at ei­ther end were once han­dles. Tin min­ers held them in their black­ened hands so they could eat the mid­dle with­out it get­ting grubby.

With pros­per­ity came richer, more art­ful pas­try cas­ings, and soon th­ese be­came as prized as the fill­ings. Sadly, pas­try’s tran­si­tion from the es­sen­tial to the lux­u­ri­ous has served to make pie a guilty plea­sure for mod­ern kilo­joule-coun­ters.

Luck­ily, there are en­ter­pris­ing in­di­vid­u­als who are giv­ing pies a 21st-cen­tury makeover. One of th­ese is the food writer An­gela Bog­giano. Her well-il­lus­trated book Pie (Ha­chette Livre, $55) is wrapped in a pas­try-coloured dust jacket and burst­ing with recipes for just about ev­ery kind of pie you could imag­ine. It’s a de­light to read and to cook from. When asked what in­spired her to write the book, Bog­giano laughs and says that de­spite be­ing a pie ob­ses­sive her­self, it was lis­ten­ing to the way other peo­ple talked about them.

Ev­ery­one has a favourite pie and with it comes a story. It’s of­ten the nos­tal­gia and com­fort­ing thoughts they con­jure up that make pies taste all the more de­li­cious.

It is be­com­ing a wel­come fash­ion to res­cue what has come to be thought of as junk food from the be­he­moths that have made it so. Bri­tain’s Ob­server Food Monthly re­cently awarded Po­keno Pies, a cafe and take­away in Brighton, its cov­eted cheap eats award.

And this re­dis­cov­ery is not just about pies. If a gourmet burger bar, wood-fired pizza restau­rant or fish and chip shop with a con­science has not yet opened on a street near you, watch that space. The Spec­ta­tor Tom Nor­ring­ton-Davies is head chef at Great Queen Street (32 Great Queen St, Covent Gar­den, Lon­don).

Hip to be square: The not-so-hum­ble pie is be­ing re­deemed with qual­ity fill­ings and fluffy pas­try

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