There is something about a pie that seems to awaken some kind of Pavlovian reaction in myself and a lot of people I know. I’m not entirely sure why. Possibly it is one of those guilty thrills when you are about to eat something you know is not very healthy but are going to devour it anyway because you just know it will taste so good. Maybe it is because of the mystery of what might be lurking beneath that golden brown crust (hopefully not four and twenty blackbirds). Part of it, at least in the making of one, is how you can take a combination of ingredients that look nothing special to start with – let’s be honest, uncooked pastry is hardly enticing – which when later combined and cooked look just gorgeous, good enough to, well, eat.
I do not think that we give enough credit to the pie – and its variations, I do not want to exclude the pasty or the Bedfordshire clanger (for the uninitiated, which myself included until recently, the clanger is a double chambered pasty that has savoury filling in one section and sweet in another – main course and dessert in a single pastry creation) from this particular love letter – as part of our National cuisine. Like our selection of stews, hot pots and other slow cooked dishes our pies are ways of using up what we have and providing as much high calorie nutrition as possible to a population used to hard physical work – all in a handy edible package whether to be devoured on the terraces (famously the quality of pies at football grounds has been just as much of a talking point then the results of the games) or for feeding Cornish tin miners (complete with that ridge of pastry that had the dual role of first allowing the miner not to be poisoned by his lunch and second, once hurled away into the darkness, to feed the faeries…) Personally there is nothing like a good pork pie as a reward for a hard days walking in the country.
My love affair with pies partly stems from the presence as a childhood treat. My mother, who in many ways was a great cook and baked a mean Christmas cake never made pies that I remember. So pies were shop bought – and therefore special. The exception was what came out of the ovens of some of my older relatives. My Great Aunt, who lived across the road and who I was expected to call in on every day as a result had a relatively small repertoire but was terribly good at them – a light lemon sponge, perfectly crafted scones and the best apple pie I have ever tasted. I have still never found one quite so good. It had a sweet, almost cake-like texture and quite light and frankly the apple filling was slightly redundant. Sadly she is no longer with us, and she took the recipe with her (so often the way). It was a source of slightly wicked amusement that my grandmother, her sister, cooked an apple pie too, but unfortunately her pastry was something of the consistency of leather. In the politeness that comes from the necessity not to offend your mother we frequently commented on how nice it was, which of course meant she made more, little mini pies on old saucers that we could take home. And pile one on top of the other in the fridge until my mother or I had the courage to bin them and take back the saucers with praise for their baked goodness. Sometimes you just have to say things you don’t mean, and anyway if the apple pie was a bit of a disaster, her egg custard was exceptional (and again, lost to time and memory).
According to the Lovely Wife I have freezing hands. Apparently this is an advantage to pastry making. So this year I am trying to master the art of pie making. I doubt I’ll make it to the level of my Great Aunt’s apple pie – she made that every other week and we know what practice makes. But I am looking forward to the trepidation and thrill of taking something out of the oven and hoping it looks and tastes a thing of beauty.