Published on June 5th, 2014 | by Alastair Gilmour


Pub Food: Pie-de-hi

The pie in the pub with a pint is still the classic combination, writes Alastair Gilmour

It’s the most simple of pub foods; it appears in innumerable guises from mince and onion to Scotch, steak and pork, while four and twenty blackbirds have even been baked in one. The pie – that glorious meaty, crusty, tastiest of convenience food creations.

A pie on a plate is beer’s natural ally; they are inseparable as lunchtime companions and tea-time treats. The long-demolished Rose & Crown on Walker Road in Newcastle (near the Free Trade Inn) once displayed the most inviting invitation ever written. A note in the window read: “Free Pie With Every Pint”. What bliss. But it still closed.

Also consigned to history is the single pie resting in a heated glass case on a pub counter (how long it had lingered there was part of the attraction). Today’s pies are masterclasses in invention and flavour, served with triple-cooked chips or Jersey Royals, salt-baked beetroot and fresh goats curd, depending on your sense of adventure.

However, it may be a while before we join the London pub that offers camel pie with chickpeas and pineapple in a curry sauce. Apparently, llama is available for the slightly more culinary curious, though it has proved less popular.

Once again, we owe the Romans a debt of gratitude – with the development of the Roman Empire and its efficient road transport, pies as a staple diet spread throughout Europe from the Middle East and developed regional variations based on available meats and local crops.

The 1st Century Roman cookbook Apicus makes various mentions of recipes which involve a pie case. Medieval cooks had restricted access to ovens due to the cost of construction and need for abundant supplies of fuel. But pies could be cooked over an open fire, while partnering with a baker allowed them to cook the filling inside a locally defined casing.

Pie2The earliest pie-like recipes refer to ‘coffyns’ (meaning a basket or box) with straight sealed sides and a top, while open-top pies were referred to as ‘traps’. This may be the reason why early recipes focus on the filling over the surrounding case, leading to the use of reusable earthenware pie cases which reduced the use of expensive flour.

At the coronation of eight-year-old King Henry VI in 1429, ‘partryche and pecock enhackyll’ pie was served, consisting of a cooked peacock mounted in its skin on a peacock-filled pie. Cooked birds were frequently placed by European royal cooks on top of a large pie to identify its contents, leading to the adoption in pre-Victorian times of a porcelain ornament to release steam and identify a good pie.

The Melton Mowbray pork pie was awarded Protected Geographical Indication status in 2009, meaning that only pies from that area of Leicestershire can call themselves by that name.

But anyone can produce a pork pie. Every Saturday, the Pork Pie Appreciation Society meets in the Old Bridge Inn in Ripponden, West Yorkshire. They discuss porkiness, pastry, jelly, texture, bouquet and serving temperature between draughts of Timothy Taylor Landlord; the group’s ultimate pork pie accompaniment. Spicy, dry and citrus in character, the beer’s hoppy bitterness balances the pie’s peppery seasoning of sage, thyme and parsley perfectly.

A Yorkshire inn has recently won the “best pub pie” title with an offering described as “perfect” by judges. The Chestnut Horse, near Bridlington, won a competition set by Olive magazine for a pie that, despite being named the Welsh Cob, is made of diced lamb surrounded by pastry infused with mint.

The pub, which has a menu of 35 pies, curiously all named after breeds of horses, was elected the winner from more than 200 entries. Lead judge Tom Kerridge, the chef and owner of two Michelin-starred pub the Hand and Flowers in Buckinghamshire, praised “the balance between the lamb, the filling and the gravy” and named it “the perfect pie”.

What Kerridge would make of the pie in the Oxford Bar in Edinburgh mentioned in the crime writer Ian Rankin’s book Atonement is anyone’s guess. It reads: “Two inches were already missing from his pint of IPA. A macaroni cheese pie sat on the plate before him. ‘It was the last hot thing they had,’ he explained. He took a bite and shrugged.”
To escort a pie with beer properly, think of ale as red wine and lager as white. A robust steak and kidney should suit a full-bodied beer such as Wylam Red Kite with its subtle, tempting hoppy aroma and a palate dominated by fruitiness and juicy malt. A chicken and mushroom pie reaches greater heights with Budweiser Budvar and its gentle-to-medium bitterness and long biscuit finish.

The pie is one of life’s greatest pleasures, so mix and match with your favourite pub and a beer to suit and you’re on to a winner.

About the Author

Alastair Gilmour

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