Rachel Roddy Tales from an Italian kitchen
Meat and potato pie
We still don’t have an oven in our new flat. Things that require one need carrying down a flight of stairs, across the internal courtyard and up two flights to my friend’s studio. She’s often away, so I let myself in, put whatever it is in the oven, set the timer on my phone and go home. When my pocket rings, I run back over. Our courtyard is not unused to cooking smells – in fact, it’s a vortex of them, the ovens and vents of a ground-floor bakery, trattoria, bar and canteen-like tavola calda competing for air. There are also the 64 kitchens in 64 flats over five floors that open on to the courtyard, including my friend’s studio. By the time I get to the courtyard, I have an absolute noseful.
But today it was meat and potato pie. The smell of beef, onions and potato, a thick, purposeful and savoury scent of meat steaming and braising underneath a pie crust, and the smell of pastry itself, made me stop and catch my breath. In that hot scent were Yorkshire and Lancashire market stalls; my gentle grandparents and the oval meat and tatty pies that warmed our hands but gave us heartburn; their house, which always seemed to smell of worry, meat and potatoes; and, of course, Granny’s pub, and the endless meat and tatty pies eaten there. Then, as I ascended the stairs, the smell was also of Sicily, the wedges of olive-oil pastry torta we eat there in bars with strip lighting and curtains of lotto tickets.
The odd combination of Sicilian and Lancashire aromas came about because I was trying a classic meat-and-potato filling in an Italian olive-oil crust, which some might say is sacrilege, but seemed a good pastry-filling match, especially for an Englishwoman with Lancastrian roots who lives with a Sicilian.
This pastry, made from 450g flour, salt, three tablespoons of olive oil and enough water to make it into a putty-like dough, is a good match for a meat and potato filling, because it stretches and can be twisted closed, making for a sturdy and functional pie. Alternatively, there is classic lard dough, which is tender and softly flaky. For this, I follow Simon Hopkinson’s recipe: 150g cold, diced lard, rubbed into 250g flour, a pinch of salt and enough iced water to bring everything together. Both doughs need to be chilled for an hour, then two-thirds used to line a loosebottomed 20cm-wide x 4cm-deep tin. The filling is the same for both: 300g diced braising steak, 200g diced onion, 200g diced potato, a heaped tablespoon of flour, salt and pepper, all mixed and piled into the case, with 75ml water poured on top and covered with the final third of pastry and given a milky brush. Baking is the same for both, too: 20 minutes at 200C (180C fan)/gas 6, then an hour at 160C (140C fan)/gas 3, or until the top is golden.
Of all the pies, meat and tatty is the most complete, I think: substance, softness and a starchy, enveloping gravy. I always wish for mashed potato with pies, except for meat and potato pie, when I wish for peas. I didn’t have any, so in their absence I had bread, butter and pickles – a good alternative to accompany a pie I have carried through my life, across a courtyard and up a flight of stairs.