Monday, March 23, 2009

Why pie? An introduction to my favourite snack.

Pie. Mmm, pie. Everyone loves a nice pie now and again. It might be a grand and sumptuous affair like the Prince Regent's breakfast of choice. The gout-riddled royal soak would like abed of a morning and tuck into a huge pie filled with rump steaks and pigeons, sluicing it down with a bottle of champers. Now that's living. Or it might be a more modest meal like the Cornish miner's lunch. The famous Cornish pasty is one of the most rudimentary forms a pie can take. A pasty should indeed be considered a pie because it too has a meat and gravy filling which is completely encased in pastry and baked in the same way. I admit that of course it isn't baked in a pie dish which gives the classic shape but bread baked without a loaf tin is still a loaf of bread. Shepherd's pie, its cousin the cottage pie, fish pie etc are not true pies but I won't go into that now.

The pie, in any of its many forms, is of almost universal appeal throughout the English-speaking world and beyond. We British are more associated with savoury pies, the mighty steak and kidney being a stalwart on countless pub menus, or that picnic favourite the pork pie. There is also the apple pie, that nursery favourite for which we all have fond memories. Custard, cream or ice cream? All three please. Or have you tried eating a warm slice of Bramley apple pie with a slice of good English cheese on top? Lancashire, Cheshire or a sharp Cheddar are all delicious. However, the Americans, with their sickly-sweet, cream-topped diner favourites, also have a couple of plump fingers trying to stake their claim in the apple pie: Good ol' Mom's apple pie cooling on the kitchen windowsill and all that baloney. But if we take the savoury pie crown, our friends across the pond can have the sweet ones. They put up a pretty good fight, after all. Who could resist the charms of a pumpkin, pecan, banoffee or Mississippi mud pie? They're hardly entirely original though, often being bastardised versions of established European recipes. Also, I feel it should be noted that the majority of these Yankee creations have no top crust therefore perhaps should be considered merely tarts, flans or quiches depending on style and filling type. "But what about those pies which only have pastry on top and no bottom layer - aren't they still pies?" you may ask. No. They're sheer bloody bone-idleness. Man up, lazy cooks; put pastry underneath as well. A proper pie should have two crusts to make it portable, make it easier to eat with the hands and make it taste nicer.

That comforting combination of golden pastry and unctuous, steaming filling has earned the pie love and respect from all areas. It is in the unusal position of being classless. Throughout history, the pie has been eaten by the hoity-toity and the hoi-polloi alike. This is borne out with the examples of the Prince Regent and his social opposite, the pasty-eaters of Cornwall. I can think of only a few other British foods which are eaten by all classes, continuously throughout their history. The sandwich is another such thing. But, take the oyster for example. Now the preserve of the well-heeled, or an expensive treat to be swallowed lasciviously on St Valentine's Day, this craggy bivalve never used to enjoy such exalted status. The oyster was once a staple source of protein for impoverished Londoners. Until just over a century ago, they were gathered and gobbled in their hundreds of thousands from the then-bountiful Thames. In fact, the original 'pie & mash' pies were oyster or eel pies. Then later, meat and oyster became the more prevalent filling; the oysters being used to eek out the much more expensive beef or mutton. Of course, the Thames oysters were overfished and became scarce. It is this scarcity value which led to their climbing the social ladder onto the plates of the wealthy.

So, we can see that some foods have realised their grandiose aspirations. The pie is not upwardly mobile; it doesn't need to be. It maintains its limitless appeal due to its versatility and the aforementioned comforting combination of pastry, meat and gravy. I doubt that even the maker of the very first pie - surely a genius to rival such luminaries as da Vinci, Darwin and Stevie Wonder - could have foreseen his homely creation becoming such a revered icon. Such is its majestic standing in our culture, that is also an established part of our language. Phrases such as 'to eat humble pie', 'pie in the sky' and 'as easy as pie' have been widely used for centuries and demonstrate our ingrained affection. Unusual for a foodstuff, don't you think?

But in Britain, its spiritual home, the pie is suffering from an identity crisis. Having been widely associated with jellied eels, football terraces and scratty chip shops, this modest yet noble comestible is taking a PR battering from the dietary Mary Whitehouses. Pie sales are falling along with public opinion of them. Pies are bad, they tell us. Pies are mass-produced from poor quality ingredients, they tell us. Have a salad, they tell us. Pah! But there is hope yet. The British food revolution has brought about an explosion of so-called 'gourmet' pie companies. They are re-inventing a classic and insodoing are slowly changing opinions towards a food often derided as being unhealthy, unappetising, unglamorous. The old stereotypes have started to crumble and fall. The London-based Square Pie Co is particularly noteworthy in having travelled far from its insalubrious ancestry in the East End. They now supply pies to Virgin Atlantic Upper Class, in addition to successful shops in Selfridge's Food Hall, Spitalfields market and Heathrow Airport.

So, we see that we have created classes for our classless classic. We have the cheap, frankly shit-tasting, sweaty pies of old pitted against the new breed of uber-pie with its handmade crust and snazzy fillings. They are vying for our attentions like hookers in a casino. There, lurking in a gloomy corner by the fruit machines, is the saggy, tired old slut pie trying its best to look alluring. And, sitting serenely at the bar, all golden and succulent is the high-class escort pie. It knows it looks good and will make you pay top dollar. Which to choose? Go cheap and you'll probably want to turn the lights off and hold your nose. Take the premium option and risk feelings of inferiority and being ripped off. Tough call. Occasionally, a third way presents itself: the girl-next-door beauty of a pie. One example of this is Sweeney & Todd's pie shop in Reading, Berkshire. The pies are hearty; the pastry crisp and sturdy,the filling hot and tasty with unctuous gravy. How a pie should be.

But this blog is about pies of New Zealand and I haven't yet discussed them. Happily, the aforementioned 'third way' is the Kiwi way. And these pies suffer no confusion as to their place in society. They are all relatively uniform in size, price and fillings. Pocket-sized, costing around $3 and always sold hot, they are the ubiquitous snack for the masses. The equivalent of the chilled, overpriced, underfilled sandwiches synonymous with the British working lunch. In New Zealand, if a pie is too cheap or too dear, it will be met with suspicion. It just has to be fresh, hot, tasty. No corners cut, no edges hand-crimped, no delusions of grandeur. Perhaps it is this consistency of qualities which make the pie so popular in this far-flung colony. Not in New Zealand will you find thickets of baguette bars in town centres. Nor well ordered ranks of plastic triangles encasing limp, tasteless bread-based snacks with far-reaching 'best before' dates. No, not in New Zealand. Here, thrives The Bakery.

It truly warms my heart to know that there exists a Heaven on Earth where the meat pie can walk with its head held high; the hearts and stomachs of the people treating it with the respect it rightfully deserves. Here follows some of my pie-eating experiences in this land of milk, honey, meat and pastry.

No comments:

Post a Comment