Thursday, January 26, 2006

The beauty of pies


I'm from Lancashire - so I like pies. Admittedly, I'm not from Wigan - the centre of the pie universe - but near enough. I was eating a Steak pie supper from the local chippy the other night, when I thought I should blog something about the greatness of the pastry case full of odd meat and vegetables. I should start by saying that this is a British blog - so all references to the p-word are involving 'savoury' pies, not fruity imposters like you get over the Atlantic. Try ordering Pie and Chips in the US, and see what you get. Apart from odd looks.

After a quick Google, I discovered that pies were invented by the Ancient Egyptians. Despite being fruit-based, I was delighted to learn that ...drawings of this can be found etched on the tomb walls of Ramses II, located in the Valley of the Kings. Ah, if only Indiana Jones had broken into the Temple of Pies ("I've got a bad feeling about this, Shortcrust"). I hope the hieroglyphics have side-on men with bird-heads holding a deep-filled Pastie. Later on, the first meat-based pie was created by the Ancient Greeks - a flour/water paste wrapped around meat to seal in the juices. When the Romans conquered Greece, they brought back the pie as one of their spoils of victory. "Hail Ceaser! We bring you this gift of Steak and Kidney!".

I used to eat a fair few pies at school, where Butter Pie was on the menu at least once a week. I could only find one mention of proper Butter Pies on Google - here - the rest being Butter pastry pies or Peanut Butter Pies (?). Essentially potato and onion pie, it probably was less than 50% butter. Good hearty food for schoolkids. So that's where I get it from, I suppose. Of course, pies are supposedly unhealthy, so I only eat them as part of a balanced diet of course - which in Wigan is a pie in each hand. Had to get that in somewhere. What's a kebab in Wigan? A pie on a stick. Hoho. Pies also go with football - I can remember one match at Blackburn where the half-time rush (which starts well before half-time) were queueing under the stand when Rovers scored. They were asking us what had happened, but of course didn't relinquish their spots in the queue.

As part of my research for this post - yes, you read that correctly - I looked at a few of the UK's major pie producers (or pieducers, if you will). As you should know, the number 1 branded pie in the stadia market (according to their website) is Pukka Pies (motto - 'Don't Compromise'). They only use 'young lean bullock beef cut from the forequarter. No head meat, no mechanically recovered meat and no cow meat. This has always been the case.' Honest. Although their range does include something called 'Catering Sausage'. Yum. Hollands Pies (motto - 'Every Pie has it's moment') have five pages of pies on their website, including the Cheese and Onion Pastie which contains '8% Cheese and 4.5% Onion' - and obviously a lot of something else. However, they claim a blind test of 'over 30 people' found their pies to be the best - 'The new Steak and Kidney pie has the the two most important areas - taste and texture'. On the other side of the pie lid, as it were, are Square Pie (no motto) - a London-based posh pie chain with fillings like 'Jerk Chicken' and 'Wild Mushroom and Asparagus'. Set up in 2001 because 'we believe the world needs better pies. The word pie had become synonymous with rubbery pastry and dodgy fillings you didn't trust', their website has poems and 'pie-stories'. No Catering Sausage here.

So it seems pies are here to stay. As bad for you are the chippy pies (cooked by being dropped into the chip fat), upmarket and gourmet pie sellers are putting the upper back into the crust. The rise of the middle-class foodie has meant an increase in popularity of regional variations like the Bridie and Cornish Pastie. Hopefully meat pies are making an impression in the tricky North American market - Steak and Kidney pie seems to be a euphamism for the perceived nastiness of British food. Pies are certainly going strong in Australia - the classic Pie Floater (a pie drowned in mushy peas) is a delight, and I sampled a few at Harry's Cafe de Wheels in Sydney, something of a national treasure. So I urge you all to enjoy your pies. If you need inspiration, have a look at the quite brilliant I Like Pies who have a 'Piemate of the Month'. So I'll be tucking into one of those soon. I still draw the line at Black Pudding, though.