Human beings were putting food in pastry containers at least 11,500 years ago. This was, of course, before the use of metal as a material for cooking pots. The pastry acted as both a container and a cooking vessel. The pies were heated in an open fire and broken open. The pastry was considered inedible and then discarded. This state of affairs went on all the way into mediæval times. It was then that fat was added to the pastry (by our neighbours, the French, to our shame) in order to make the container edible as well. Pies were a type of early fast food, being made elsewhere then brought along to public spaces and events to be sold ready-to-eat. The pie moved from being a dish for the aristocracy to more of an everyman’s meal. The best illustration of this is that of the quintessential Cockney food of Pie and Mash. What probably started out as pie vendors moving their businesses indoors and expanding into cooking and selling eels turned into the unique fare of minced beef pies and mashed potatoes covered with the thickened water that the eels had been cooked in. The water was also flavoured with parsley, and whilst at first glance the liquor, as the thickened, seasoned eel water is known, doesn’t seem a natural companion to a beef pie, it became so firm a favourite that it is still popular with many Londoners and for those whose recent ancestors moved out of London into the surrounding suburbs. Many seaside resorts in the South-East of England have either dedicated pie-and-mash shops or sell it alongside other dishes. Even the interior of the shop is considered traditional if the walls are tiled and there are communal long tables with benches as opposed to individual chairs. Another feature of a good pie-and-mash shop is chili vinegar (malt vinegar that has red chilies steeped in it. Although there are not as many pie-and-mash (or pie-and-eel, as they are more traditionally known) shops as there used to be, it is still a meal that is still much sought after and enjoyed, not least by me!
There are four main types of meat pie in the UK. These are the – well, they're just known by the name of the ingredients. Therefore the most well-known, the steak-and-kidney pie, will be cooked in a container in an oven and have a distinctive pastry base (the part in the container) and the crust (the top) which is a golden-brown. The filling will be stewing steak, the chopped kidneys of cows, sheep or pigs, and the thickened juices from the meat. Other popular fillings are chicken and mushroom, steak (with no kidney, otherwise the same) and minced beef and onion. Naturally, other ingredients can be (and sometimes are) the filling. Chicken tikka, for instance, which is a form of curry, can be found occasionally.
Then there is a whole subgenre to be found in the pork pie, which is more of a complete and distinct style. They are nearly always cylindrical (the sides do not taper towards the base) and the pork filling may be cured or not. The pork is chopped rather than minced and pork jelly is sometimes poured into the pie and fills the spaces. The pastry is always hot water crust pastry which is more solid and fatty than those of the other pies mentioned before. Also they are virtually always eaten cold and are quite often an ingredient of a picnic or buffet. Having said that, variations on the pork pie can be rectangular and include such wonders as gala pie (which is a pork pie with cured pork and boiled egg running through the centre) and game pie (available game meat instead of pork). The Melton Mowbray pork pie is the exemplar of the style, and as such, is kept authentic by the application of European "Protected designation of origin" laws. Pork pies also feature as an icon of Britishness because, when I was quite a bit younger, cooked food wasn't normally sold in pubs. Instead there was a glass or Perspex cabinet roughly eighteen inches high which contained bread rolls and pork pies. The rolls were sliced horizontally and had fillings such as a nondescript cheese with some sweet pickle, or supermarket ham. The pork pies were individual and were still in the manufacturer’s cellophane wrapping. None of these were gourmet products – far from it. They were there simply to ‘mop up’ the beer. It’s worth noting that they were much, much cheaper and faster to purchase than ordering a snack in today’s pubs!
The humble pie (to ‘eat humble pie’ is a dated British expression meaning to apologise) has almost as long an association with our national identity as beer and pubs, and is often interwoven with them. It’s a little sad to see them moving out of the mainstream of our cuisine as health considerations move to the fore. However, there are some havens of that wonderful and much-maligned foodstuff that are keeping the faith even in these straitened times. A really good pie is a memorable dish, depending as it does on both good ingredients and the craftsmanship and diligence of the cook. Autumn’s on us now, and what better time to buy, make and consume a really wonderful meat pie!