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