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Pies (and my food story!)


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My food story can be traced back to one product: Walkers Pork Pie. I was born in 1968 so my formative years were the seventies and early eighties. Loughborough is a small Leicestershire market town famous for the university and ladybird books. It was rumoured to have more pubs than any town in the country but I was yet to discover that the best beer was Marstons Pedigree. The town is surrounded by pretty villages and the Charnwood forest, but itself is utilitarian and a good place for a Saturday night fight.

My family are enthusiastic eaters. We enjoyed food and ate together most days. The rhythms of our food drilled deep into my psyche and drives the food experiences I now share with my family. From Scotch eggs and bread pudding cake for holidays, Devon cream teas, cooked breakfasts in the caravan, bottling pickled onions in September (3 large sweet jars lasted all year) and baking Christmas cake and puddings in November, our food followed a regular and comforting timeline.

Mum and dad both cooked, mum was a great baker. Dad enjoyed cooking what were then exotic recipes, often inspired by family viewings of Food & Drink on BBC2. I remember the excitement of trying rock hard homemade ice-cream, bath buns, fresh pizza, chicken with peppers and that seventies classic ratouille.

Our food shopping followed a rigid pattern. Tuesday was the economy shopping day. Everything funded by the family allowance and lugged home on the bus. Saturday morning was for treats, a family outing to the superb Loughborough market for prawns or cod roe (dusted in flour, shallow fried and served on toast) for the grown ups, a quarter of crunchy for me, a joint of meat for Sunday lunch. And, if we were lucky a visit to the Walkers shop in the market place where cheerful ladies clad in white coats and hats sold pork pies, sausages and hand carved ham.

We brought all three but pork pie was the thing. A crisp, lard based pastry clad a peppery mix of a pale, chunky pork and a layer of jelly. The pie was wrapped in grease proof paper and was usually destined for a salad tea or Saturday lunch. This was a treat, we always had a large one for family events, Easter and Christmas. Christmas day breakfast was pork pie, I enjoy mine with generous glugs of brown sauce. The pie had to be very fresh and was cut with a sharp knife. The sign of a good pie was the semi-audible shiver as the knife sliced through the crisp pastry. It was never a Melton Mowbray pork pie - food identity and provenance was not such an issue then.

Whilst it was pork pie which started me off I soon developed a taste for most other pies. Eating Cornish pasties and Scotch pies on holidays plus large slices of home made beef & potato pie.

I grew up with this appreciation of good food and even though I didn't start cooking regularly until I started university I carried a good understanding and interest into what went into my stomach. Walkers fired my interest in shopping for good food. The shop, the greaseproof paper and the pie itself all contributed to the experience and pleasure of shopping and eating.

Now lets get the food police thing out the way. Pies are often cheap filing food made with meat and pastry. The meat is often off-cuts containing a high proportion of fat, pastry is flour, water and fat. All in all a pie is not a healthy option, especially if you spend your days working at a desk rather than down a mine. I now go for quality over quantity. Luckily pies are trendy and there are a growing band of gourmet pie makers such as Pie Minister (try the new pie made with Italian cotechino sausage, they have shops/stalls in Bristol, Oxford and London markets including Borough market)), Pie Mill and Simple Simon Pies plus a brace of pie recipe books from Angela Boggiano and Sophie Conran. It even looks like EC protected status will be granted for the Melton Mowbray pork pie (but on very wide geographical area to keep some big factories happy).

Pie Minister sell the Matador Pie which has a paprika dusted crust containing beef, chorizo, butter beans and olives. Most runny pie filings are really casseroles in disgiuse so here is my version of the Matador filling which is in turn based on the Spanish casserole Fabadas Asturia:

Ingredients

450g stewing beef, ideally shin - cut into 2 cm cubes
150g whole cured chorizo - sliced thickly into rounds
100g black pudding - skinned and roughly chopped (optional)
2 red onions - peeled, quartered and split into layers
2 red peppers - deseeded and sliced
1 large can chopped tomatoes
2 large potatoes - peeled and cut into large chunks
Green olives - stoned and halved (10 to 20 seems right)
500 ml beef stock (or a mixture of stock and wine)
2 tablespoons tomato puree
2 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon paprika (ideally smoked)
2 or 3 tablespoons flour
Olive oil
Salt and black pepper

Method

Place the beef cubes into a large bowl and mix with flour and a few grinds or pinches of salt and black pepper. Heat a tablespoon of olive oil, ideally in your casserole dish and fry the chorizo slices until they start to run crisp and bleed paprika scented oil into the pan. Remove the chorizo from the casserole turn up the heat and add the beef. You want to brown the individual cubes, this improves the flavour and allows them to pick up the chorizo spices. Dont crowd the pan or it cools down and the meat will stew, do it in batches and fry for around 5 - 10 minutes until the beef is lightly browned. Remove the beef, add the onions and red pepper and cook for another 10 minutes until softened.

Put all the cooked ingredients into the casserole and add the tomato puree, bay leaves, chopped tomato (and juice), and stock/wine. Stir, bring to a gentle simmer, cover and cook on a low heat for at least 1 hours. Check the casserole to make sure that it doesnt dry out or stick to the pan, . if it does you can add more liquid (water will be fine). Half an hour before the want to eat add the black pudding, olives and potatoes ad more liquid if needed. The black pudding should dissolve and flavour the sauce so dont worry if it disappears!

When it is ready taste and add any extra paprika, salt and black pepper. Like most casseroles this improves after a day in the fridge. It can used as pie filling or eaten as a casserole.

Pies can eaten hot or cold Some are multi purpose - anyone who has tried a warm pork pie will agree or best eaten hot (Scotch pie) or cold (Game pie). A warm pie eaten on the move or at the football must be one of our ultimate comfort foods. Crisp pastry enveloping a hot, savoury filing - chunks of beef & potato, minced beef & onion, cheese & onion and chicken & mushroom are probably the most common fillings found in butchers and bakers throughout the land. Plus we have the Pork pie, Scotch pie made with lard and minced beef or mutton and the Cornish pasty made with beef, potato and swede.

Whatever it is. a good pie must have structural integrity so that you can hold it in your sweaty palms and take several bites without the pastry crumbling or the filling oozing down your coat. The filling must be generous with at least as much filling as pastry. Most of the hand pies brought at shops are single servings baked for solitary enjoyment rather than for sharing perhaps that explains why we are so fond of them!

I now run the best website about sausages (your reading it!) and scour the country for food shops which can match the pleasure of those childhood visits to Walkers. A trip back to Loughborough nearly always includes a Walkers pork pie and our 7 year old twins enjoy a slice with brown sauce!

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