The big cheese
A childhood spent pulling pints in an Oldham pub while Granny and her sister baked food for the punters gave me a recurring hankering for a proper cheese and onion pie, favourite jukebox hits and a glass of old-fashioned bitter
By the age of eight, I could pull a pint of bitter. I needed to stand on a chair and use all my weight, almost dangling from the pump to pull it down and release the amber liquid into the dimpled pint pot. Granny or Uncle Colin would be behind me, telling me to go steady and watch the head, catching the pump as it lurched back, putting a hand under the glass just in case. I was better at dropping lemon quarters in an inch of gin, its fierce juniper scent making my nose twitch. I was better still at impaling cherries on toothpicks for Babycham, or my own tame snowball, which I would drink at the bar with my brother, wreathed in cigarette smoke, legs swinging from the high stool in time to songs we didn’t really understand: “If you want my body, and you think I’m sexy, come on sugar let me know...”
A good slice of my childhood was spent at my granny’s pub, The Gardeners Arms: a large, red-brick Robinson’s pub at the bottom of Durham street in Oldham, in Greater Manchester. For years it had been a troubled local, but then Alice came along. She was quite a woman, Alice Jones. At first glance she seemed delicate, dainty even, but she wasn’t. She was strong and hardworking, with a capacity to clean, the likes of which I have never seen since. I remember her both in her housecoat buffing the brass tables and flushing out the pipes – good bitter comes from a clean cellar and clean pipes – then, later, when regulars had taken their place, coming down the stairs ready for the night.
“You look a million dollars Al,” my grandpa Gerry would say, Bob Seger curling out of the juke box in agreement: “She was looking so right, in her diamonds and frills...”
By the time we three grandkids arrived in the 1970s, you were safe in The Gardeners Arms, the convivial heart of that part of town. Alice had started serving food, her sister May at the stove. May was even smaller and tougher than Alice: I remember her frying, shouting at my uncle Frank or cracking her 30-a-day laugh. May’s specialty was “steak Canadian” – a strip of steak, flash fried with onions stuffed in large white rolls called oven-bottom cakes. There were also bacon or tongue sandwiches; and pies: meat and potato or cheese and onion – both served with peas. On Sunday, once the pub had closed after the lunch service and the last customers swayed away, bottles clinking in their pockets, we would push the brass tables together and lay for our Sunday lunch, a roast and all the trimmings on the side, a tangle of family relations, and as many coins as we wanted for the jukebox.
Later, when she left the pub, Alice still made pie and peas. It’s her voice, specific and firm, I hear when I make pastry: “You want cold hands. Run them under the cold tap, then work quickly, rubbing until it looks like breadcrumbs. And use iced water.”
I miss her voice, with its soft Manchester lilt. It is the same one I hear and love in Simon Hopkinson’s writing: his stories and recipes from his Lancashire mum, familiar, and therefore comforting. His recipes are full of common sense and good taste, unbeatable. Today’s is his recipe.
Cheese and onion pie is just that: cheese and onion – nothing more, nothing less. It is a straightforward, smashing pie, a soft filling encased in short, crumbling pastry, meaning you need to chase the last few crumbs amount the plate with a finger tip. The cheese should be Lancashire: its fluffy texture, creamy flavour and the fact that it melts, but doesn’t pull into strings, make it ideal. It is near impossible to find Lancashire cheese in Rome, so I made do with a mix of young pecorino and caciocavallo, which worked well enough.
Cheese and onion pie cries out for a dab of English mustard or piccalilli. I
The cheese should be Lancashire: its fluffy, creamy and it melts but doesn’t pull into strings Rachel Roddy is a food writer based in Rome and the author of Five Quarters: Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome (Saltyard) and winner of the André Simon food book award @racheleats. Recipe from Simon Hopkinson’s book,The Good Cook – out now.
had neither. I am not sure what Auntie May would have said about the frillyedged tin I used or the pink radicchio I served it with – plenty, I imagine. I wished for a pint of Robbies bitter with my slice, and to be transported to The Gardeners Arms, with everyone there; to put another coin in the jukebox baby, “cum on feel the noize, girls grab the boys, we get wild wild wild...”
Simon Hopkinson’s cheese and onion pie Serves 4-6
60g cold butter, diced 60g cold lard, diced 250g self-raising flour 2–3 tbsp iced water 3 medium onions, sliced into half moons 25g butter 250-300g Lancashire cheese, grated (or cheddar or young pecorino romano) Salt and pepper Milk, for sealing and glazing
1 Rub the fat into the flour with your fingertips, or pulse in a food processor, until the mix resembles breadcrumbs. Add a pinch of salt and just enough iced water – gradually – to make a ball of dough. Wrap the dough in clingfilm and chill for at least 30 minutes.
2 Melt the butter, add the onions and a pinch of salt. Cook gently, stirring, for a few minutes then add a small glass of water and continue cooking for 15 minutes, or until the water has evaporated and the onion is very soft. Take off the heat and allow to cool.
3 Set the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. Roll out ⅔ of the pastry. Lay it into a 20cm wide x 4cm deep tin, so it overhangs slightly. Prick the base with a fork. Spread half the onion over the base, add some black pepper, then top with half the cheese. Repeat. Paint the edges with milk. Roll the remaining dough into a circle a bit larger than the tin, lay it over the filling and then press firmly into the edges. Trim the excess. Make three short slashes in the top.
4 Sit the pie on a preheated baking sheet. Cook for 40-50 minutes, or until golden and cheese is bubbling gently through the slashes. Let the pie to sit for 30 minutes before turning it out.
Cook’s tip The pastry can be made in advance, kept in the fridge, or even the freezer. I often double the quantity and freeze half of the pastry for another pie.