Life of Pie

You could walk around Greece and eat a different cheese pie every step of the way. Filling, construction, pastry, all seem dependent on local custom or whim. You might get a brittle, multi-layered filo affair, sliced in a wedge from the round on an aluminium counter, dripping spinach onto the sunburnt concrete; or something more like a pasty, short and buttery, filled with feta alone, crumbling warmly on the deck of the night-ferry to Crete; or something between the two, soft and pungent with dill, with chips and tomato salad who-knows-where except it was hot and smelled of coffee. (That might have been in Turkey, actually, but we’ll let that slide.) I say ‘you’ but I’m obviously talking about me. I wish I’d taken notes, really, except then I’d probably be touting myself as some kind of expert on Greek cheese pies (tyropita, since you’re asking), spouting on about the traditional pastry of the night-ferry to Crete, the fillings particular to the lunchcarts of Athens, when really I don’t know anything about it. I’m sure some of the ones I ate, far from Mediterranean authenticity, were equivalent to those of a Grecian Greggs – but none the worse (or less interesting) for that. I’d like to see someone do a serious study into regional variations on the chicken lattice, or the ritual significance of cold pastry products in British life.

Pies here (no pastry dogmatician, I happily include plate pies, dish pies, and pasties under this umbrella) tend to come in various shades of meat, notwithstanding the noble cheese-and-onion slice – often a good option if you’re somewhere you ‘don’t trust the water’, so to speak, like a service station, or Nuneaton. Pastry, in fact, seems to have come into being (I hesitate to say ‘been invented’ when a lengthy folk process was obviously involved) mainly as a means of cooking and preserving bits of animal, with edibility a secondary concern. Before well made, tightly-fitted Le Creuset dishes, an airtight seal could be made with flour and water; before fridges (or tins?), cooked meat could be coated with a rich jelly, the whole encased in pastry and left in the larder til Christmas. (When romanticising such practices of our hardy ancestors, it’s good to remember that all of these people are dead.) The association of pies with meat, gravy, and the trencherman’s diet is still so strong that the prospect of a vegetarian pie (and here I’m not including pasties) seems to throw a lot of chefs into disarray, out of which comes an ill-considered mush (I wouldn’t dignify it with the word ‘hodge-podge’) of parsnips, tomato, and lentilles de Puy. Calm down, I always think. Nothing wrong with a plain cheese pie – especially with a hot-water crust and served at room temperature, where the flavours of aged dairy really shine. When it comes to a hot pie, though, there’s no competitor to meat, a fact which is easily proved (the best bit of a hot pie is where the gravy soaks down into the pastry at the bottom, and up into the underside of the lid; without meat, there is no real gravy). I suppose it comes down to venison or beef. (Hot pork pies just don’t exist, for some reason, as pastry-covered lamb ones don’t, traditionally. And chicken pies, while delicious, rely on artificial aids – béchamel, usually – for their saucing, which compromises the aforementioned gravy-soak effect.) I am personally not a particular fan of slow-cooked venison, and I find the traditional mitigators of its haughty richness – sharp redcurrant, clanging, floral juniper – distracting in a pie, which should (to my mind) represent an almost monomaniacal depth, rather than a dilettante breadth, of flavour. I’m prepared to concede that this is a personal preference, however, and wouldn’t say no to a venison pie – unless beef was also available.

Pastry, of course, is a whole other matter. Once, as I said, mainly a cooking aid, pastry has attained an almost equal role to its filling (it is, after all, what makes a pie a pie -unless it’s a shepherd’s pie) and in the process become largely a vehicle for the consumption of butter. A really buttery shortcrust, beautiful on a lemon or custard tart, is far too fragile for a meat pie – and one made strong enough is far too solid to be enjoyable. Puff’s thousand layers, wonderful as a lid, are wasted on a pie bottom; weighed down and soaked through, they don’t have a chance to expand, and lose all purpose. Flaky is clearly the answer. (Having moved firmly onto British pie-making, I’m ignoring filo, wonderful though it is.) What might seem like a compromise – a cheating cousin to rough puff – is actually a star in its own right, especially when made with quantities of lard. (Old recipe books tell you to use lard for texture and butter for flavour, but I like the slightly rank fattiness you get with lard alone.) It has the added advantage of being easy to make, not a whole-day job like proper puff, a task which almost dares you to use Jus-Roll; a great product, but you can always tell it’s bought. And no-one wants to think about bought pies, all hooves and eyeballs and dust. (People, myself included, eat things in the name of nose-to-tail that they sneer at in a hotdog.) Still, pie-making is something you should set aside both time and space for. The filling needs time to stew and reduce to that desired depth, the pastry to rest, the whole to bake through, without a trace of raw flour at the base, and it’s nice to have a whole sunny kitchen to yourself for the duration.

As a final piece of advice, I would suggest you err on the side of making too much of everything; you can always eat the extra filling, and there’s nothing sadder than stretching a well-made pastry past its capacity for beauty. Be generous, and it will show in your pie.

Starch and Lard

  

  I think pasta was the first thing I really learned to cook properly, graduating from Super Noodles to the real stuff via those powdered-cheesy-sauce-in-a-packet ones (c’mon, they’re delicious) and taking notes along the way. (Disregarding the packet instructions, I would quickly reduce my barbecue beef sauce to a rich coating consistency, or mess around with butter:milk ratios – a foodie even then). I ate a LOT of pasta, perfecting the basics – the deep boil of the water, the cupped palmful of salt needed, the slick of oil or butter at the end – and still really like it for itself, rather than just a vehicle for sauce. A bowl of spaghetti with plenty of black pepper and cheese is one of my favourite meals.

Although I’m less inclined to eat huge expanses of starch these days, pasta is still my go-to quick dinner, my need-to-line-the-stomach-but-there’s-nothing-in-the-house fix, and as such I have a small but honed repertoire of very quick dressings for it. (I think pasta sauces should be either ridiculously long-winded – ragus of rabbit / ox cheek – or ready in the time it takes the pasta to cook. Anything in the middle isn’t really worth messing around with). The classic here is spaghetti with garlic and chilli, but I’m not going to sit here and give you a recipe for that; I’m also a big fan of the Sicilian sautéed brassica school. This, though, is my current favourite, born of the few oddities I had in an otherwise empty kitchen. There’s nothing worse than food writers talking about their ‘store cupboard’ dishes, assuming you have salted anchovies and the rinds of fine cheeses knocking about the place, so I won’t call it that. It was, though.

SPAGHETTI, PIG FAT, PICKLED GARLIC & BREADCRUMBS

For one

100g spaghetti

75g salted pork fat, diced (lardo or salo, depending on where you’re shopping)

2 cloves pickled garlic, sliced

a pinch of chilli flakes

a splash of balsamic vinegar

a handful of dried breadcrumbs (pangrattato, if you’re buying them)

salt and pepper

I assume you know the pasta drill; a deep pan of water, a good teaspoon of salt, a proper rolling boil. If I’m cooking spaghetti for one and therefore not in a huge pan, I like to break it in half before adding it to the water. You might feel that defeats the point of spaghetti, though.

When that’s on, put the pork fat in a cold frying pan and heat gently. When some of it has rendered out, add the garlic and chilli, and increase the heat, tossing it around to get colour on both the garlic and fat. When they’re nicely sautéed, add a splash of vinegar and let it reduce slightly. Put aside til the pasta’s done.

When it is, drain it, keeping a bit of the cooking water, and tip back into the pan with the fat and bits, and a spoonful of the reserved water. Give a good stir, and add the breadcrumbs, a load of pepper, and some salt if it needs it. Some parsley might be appropriate here too, but I didn’t have any.