Jason Goodwin bakes his first pie
LAST week, I sat on the top deck of a London bus, cheerfully peering into the mezzanine windows of famous shops and anonymous office buildings, untroubled by the dictum that a man over 30 who takes a bus is a failure. It seems a stupid way of thinking about all the interesting people you see. Provided you get on the right one to start with, the whole enterprise is a resounding success.
Mine took me very near my destination (unlike Margot Asquith, who, on her first bus journey, famously told the conductor to drop her at 5, Eaton Square) and gave me an enjoyable urban drama, seen fleetingly through glass, rather like watching TV in a foreign hotel.
It did, however, prompt me to reflect on my ambitions in life. Long-held ambitions I have fulfilled include writing a book and visiting Big Sur, besides others I formulated only moments before they occurred, such as meeting Lauren Bacall.
Some—train driver, cocktail inventor, maker of world peace —have, sadly, passed me by but, until last week, I had never so much as attempted to fulfil the one that has haunted me ever since I learned to read. I refer to making a raised pie.
Reading and pies go together like eggs and bacon. Pies introduce us to our letters: A is apple pie, B bought it, C caught it and so on—and they figure large in children’s books. The pie on the shelf is a handy plot device. Introduce a greedy boy, bring on the pie and the Fates are set in motion.
For readers, it’s a short step from The Pie and The Patty-pan via Just William to Mr Pickwick regaling his friends with pie and ale. By then, you may have children of your own and, once more, you enter the world of pie, but in all those years, I had never actually made one.
I was prompted to do so by my son Isaac, who’s not only a great cook, but also the publisher-designer of a small publishing company of which I am the director. Not to mention publicist, tea boy, marketing manager, distribution liaison officer and party organiser. Our third publication, after an Ottoman cookbook and a guide to sacred London, is a reissue of my mother Jocasta Innes’s cookbook, The
Country Kitchen. It was always her favourite book, well researched and perfectly lived, an affectionate summation of and farewell to her own country life in Swanage in the 1970s. The
Pauper’s Cookbook (1971) made her a name, but The Country Kitchen (1979) satisfied an ambition.
IWAS delighted to rediscover the family recipe for chorizo. My grandmother, Eileen, was born and bred on the Argentine pampas in an age in which it was a proper hot Spanish sausage and not just some lazy garnish that you can toss into a paella at the drop of a hat. The family chorizo is made of beef, paprika and a little pork with wine and garlic. It dries behind the Aga better than petticoats on a Patagonian washing line.
My mother’s Melton Mowbray raised pork pie required more planning. The butcher gave us a pair of trotters for stock. Boiled lard and water made the pastry. We chopped the pork— gammon and fresh—and added pepper and salt. We smoothed out the casing in a cake tin, packed in the filling, clapped on a lid, put it in the oven and went for a long, long walk to listen for birds.
Learning to recognise every bird in the country from its song became my new ambition at the weekend, after a visit from the composer Peter Cowdrey. Standing in the garden in a welter of trilling and fluting, Peter effortlessly extracted robin and blackbird, jay and blue tit, greenfinch and song thrush from this cascade of joyful sound. A special look came over his face with the song thrush: ‘He always repeats the phrase. Always does it twice.’ After a few minutes, I could almost discern it myself.
Home again, we took out the pie, let it cool, poured in the hot stock through a little hole in the lid and set it aside in the larder. When it came out to the table, it looked superb—a wheel of pie, crimped edges and all. It didn’t collapse, it didn’t look grey inside and the pastry wasn’t too thick or too crumbly.
It wasn’t so much the sense of a satisfied ambition that made my first slice a solemn one. It was an unexpected sense of a chain of connection, taking me back beyond even pie, to a hot Spanish sausage and girls in Edwardian hats, picnicking on the endless Argentine pampas.
Next week: Jonathan Self
Introduce a greedy boy, bring on the pie and the Fates are set in motion