Monthly Archives: September 2011

A Life of Pie

I almost called this “Home Alone”, but I wasn’t entirely alone, there were the four dogs, and the pork pie.

Clarissa jetted off to Dubai and then India for a week as the unpaid assistant of an internationally famous DJ. That’s a sentence I never thought I’d write. Luckily for me she was anxious about how I was to survive her absence and suggested a pork pie to help tide me over. Clarissa’s pork pies crop up from time to time throughout the year, though at increasingly longer intervals more’s the pity.

A few years ago pies of all shapes and sizes seemed to pour out of our kitchen. She even painted a portrait of herself perched on a giant pasty and called it ‘Madonna of The Pies’.

The Oxford Dictionary notes that the word ‘pie’ dates from the first years of the 14th Century, Alan Davidson in his “Oxford Companion to Food” suggested pie maybe shortened from ‘magpie’, a collection of different ingredients. Early pies were called coffyns, the pastry, hard and strong,  a container for the filling and sometimes discarded.  The pastry was so indestructible that the pie could be placed directly onto the embers of the fire so that the pie crust became its own oven. The raised pork pie is a direct descendant of these early coffyns, certainly the first pork pie recorded in the Melton Mowbray area dates from the 14th Century.

The old recipes are seasonal, traditionally September is the beginning of the pork pie season because Autumn was the time when pigs were killed in readiness for the long hard winter. Lard rendered from pork fat is an essential ingredient in the pastry, which is called ‘hot water pastry’ and necessary to construct a raised pie as distinct from a flat or plate pie, or where the pastry crust simply  covers an open pie. The dough is raised by hand, sometimes over a wooden ‘dolly’ and sometimes using a bowl as a mould to shape the pie. Clarissa has made some free-form pies as well, but however you do it the resulting pie is likely to be uneven, sometimes very uneven as the pie will sag and tilt during the cooking. The baked crust will be shiny and fairly water-tight so you can fill the pie with hot liquid meat jelly. One of our earliest pie-making mistakes was to not make the crust thick enough to hold the stock without collapsing. Getting the amounts right for the jelly is a bit hit and miss, but I don’t think it is crucial if you don’t fill the pie completely. The oldest recipes use uncured pork and mashed anchovies, the result is an old-fashioned taste and distinctive grey meat, unlike the artificially pink shop-bought pork pie.

Melton Mowbray has attained  PDO status (protected designation of origin) in recognition of their pies historic importance, but other areas for instance Yorkshire and Cheshire lay claim to producing some excellent traditional pork pies. Wilson’s the Leeds butchers have become famous for their three-tiered pork pie wedding cake,  and the Pork Pie Appreciation Society is in Yorkshire. Every March they hold a pork pie competition; here’s their amazing  tribute to the pork pie!

Malika Mezeli of 'Lardy Da,' pork pie maker extraordinaire

Nearer to home Malika Mezeli  aka ‘Lardy Da’ makes homemade rare breed pork pies and renders her own lard from pork fat at home in Peckham. I think Malika is a local treasure, she tries to use every part of the animal and even makes pig’s head terrine!

©Leo Johnson

You can find Lardy Da at Blackheath Farmers’ Market on the first and second Sunday of the month, and at other London markets.

In the past I’ve bought pork for our pies from Wellbeloved’s in Tanners Hill, or  Christine’s and JC Smith’s in Deptford High Street, and memorably from Northfield Farm in Rutland and Borough Market.  Memorably because if like me you can remember what pork used to taste like before the  supermarkets told us we wanted lean flavourless pork, then Northfield Farm’s pork is indescribably nostalgic; “there are few places I’d travel 400 miles to buy meat,” said Clarissa Dickson Wright of Northfield Farm, which is also a member of the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie Association.  I did travel to Northfield Farm a couple of years ago, and met farmer and ex-banker Jan McCourt. Jan took me to see his Iron Age pigs, he suggested we didn’t get too close to them;  they were, he said, a bit aggressive and likely to ignore the electric fence in an attempt to attack us!

Jan McCourt of Northfield Farm, Rutland

So I had to be content with a photograph of Jan with some goats, their only aggression was to try and eat my camera bag, and butt me from behind as I bent over.

But this time we were in Nunhead so we bought the pork from HA Smith & Son. This would be the biggest pie Clarissa has made for some time, and I’m happy to say that even sharing slices with the lurcher, it lasted the week. Of course I was lonely that week and even talked to the dog. Every night on the doorstep after his walk I quoted Withnail to him: “first, we go in there and get wrecked, then we eat a pork pie!” He looked puzzled but agreed.

  A Hand Raised Pork Pie

(serves 12)

The ingredients and method are listed in the order they were prepared and cooked,  the cooking time for the pie is about 2 1/2 hours, preparation 30 minutes, and preparing the stock 3 1/2 hours, but that happens along with the cooking of the pie, or you can prepare the stock earlier.

For the Jelly Stock:

Bones from the pork, shoulder and ribs

2 pigs trotters

1 carrot

1 onion stuck with 4 cloves

Sprigs of Thyme and Parsley and some bay leaves

1 tsp peppercorns

1 tsp juniper berries

3 ltrs water

Pepper and salt, or 2 tbs fruit jelly


Put all the above into a large saucepan and bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 3 hours. Then strain through a sieve and put back on the heat till the stock is reduced to about 450 ml.  Season with pepper and salt, or 2 tbs of fruit jelly (I used some wild plum jelly I’d made).

Allow to cool, it will set into a jelly.

For the filling:

1.35 kg pork belly, ribs removed by the butcher and reserved for the stock

1.35 kg pork shoulder, bone removed by the butcher and reserved for the stock

(when the bones have been removed the weight is considerably less)

1 tbs chopped fresh sage

Few scrapes of nutmeg

1 tin of anchovies finely chopped

1 onion, grated

Fresh ground black pepper


Hand chop the meat and fat rather than mince so you have small chunks. Put all the meat into a mixing bowl and add the rest of the ingredients for the filling, mix it all together with your hands or a wooden spoon then put to one side.

For the Hot Water Pastry:

400 ml water

340 g lard

900 g plain flour

1 tbs icing sugar ( for a crispy crust)

1/2 tsp salt

1 egg, beaten

8 bay leaves

Greaseproof paper



In a large saucepan bring the water and lard to the boil. Mix the salt and icing sugar into the flour, remove the hot liquid from the heat and quickly shoot the flour into the hot water, stirring with a wooden spoon. You’ll need a strong spoon because you must stir briskly till the dough forms a smooth ball. Turn out the dough onto a board and when it is cool enough to handle quickly knead the dough for a few moments. Then let it cool some more and divide it by cutting off a quarter of the dough and putting that to one side for the lid.

The cheats way to make a raised pie would be to use a loose-ringed cake tin and press the dough into the tin and up the sides. But Clarissa took the larger ball of dough and plunged her fist into the middle and gradually worked the dough outwards and at the same time upwards, drawing it up and out using both her floured hands. When the dough looks about right, about 15 cm high, and in other words like a pie (!), draw the sides inwards slightly then quickly secure the sides with a piece of grease proof paper folded in half and loosely tied with string.

Pile the meat filling into the pie, pushing it gently down and around the pie case. Remove the paper and gently mould the pastry against the filling with the palms of your hands. Take the reserved ball of dough and just using your hands, flatten it into a lid and lay it onto the pie, crimping the lid into the sides with your fingers. Decorate the top with bits of leftover dough and make a large steam hole in the middle of the lid. Wet the bay leaves and arrange them around the outside, then again wrap the pie sides in greaseproof paper doubled-over and secured with string. Glaze the top with beaten egg. Then using a wide fish slice, mine is 25 cm wide, or two together, carefully slide the pie onto a lipped baking sheet and put in your oven preheated to 180 C (350F) for 2 – 2 1/2 hours. Remove from the oven and take off the paper then put it back in the oven for 15 minutes.

Remove from the oven, tie more greaseproof around it, loosely, and allow to cool. Meanwhile, gently warm the jellied stock so it melts and using a funnel or great care, pour the stock into the pie through the steam hole. This takes a little time as the stock dribbles down through the pie and fills the spaces inside, so do it a little at the time. Leftover stock can be frozen for future pies! Finally, if you wish, fill the steam hole with fruit jelly, or jam, which I’d also serve with the pie.

Allow the pie to cool and set overnight still wrapped in the paper, before imagining yourself in a coaching inn on the Great North Road, a deerhound at your feet, sitting beside a blazing fire with a pint of Porter and a slice of pie, the taste of Old England.

The Queen’s (Full) English

One thing led to another. I was driving towards the North Kent Marshes and an appointment with Farrow and Ball, as I drove I was half-listening to the audio book of “Iris“,  the recollections of Iris Murdoch by her husband John Bayley.

Farrow and Ball wanted to do some publicity shots of their paint range at our tumble-down shack, I had hoped that they might paint it, but it turned out that I was just the first location in a week of photo-shoots. They wanted to shoot outdoors and it rained of course.

Photographer James Merrell and the team soldiered on. “I think the rain adds something, makes it more real, more British,” said Charlie the Creative Manager bravely, while we held umbrellas over James. No time to wait and see if the weather cleared, they had to get to West Sussex that afternoon for another shoot.      “And tomorrow we’re in Deptford,” said the stylist.

Not the Master Shipwright’s House in Watergate Street I said?   “Yes,” said Charlie, “why don’t you come along?”

Just try and stop me I thought.

The next day the sun shone after a dismal start and I wandered down to the river and the Master Shipwright’s House. They were having lunch, and Charlie showed me around a few of the rooms and introduced me to the owner. It is the sort of house I could easily live in, huge rooms, distressed walls and bare floorboards.

I’ve glimpsed it from the street when the gates are open, I’ve seen it from the other side of the river, but nothing really prepares you for the shiver of history when you’re actually walking around inside it. Recently I’ve become more and more interested in Deptford’s lost dockyards, and for a couple of weeks I’ve spent a day wandered around the Pepys Estate and Deptford Green. It’s too late for the Royal Victoria Victualling Yard, mostly buried under the Pepys Estate, but now there are plans afoot to build on the 42 acres of Convoys Wharf, the old King’s Yard founded by Henry VIII in 1513, his first Royal Dockyard.  If you’d be interested in learning more about the unsympathetic development proposed for Convoys Wharf I urge you to visit the Deptford Dame853, and for a scholarly and passionate defence of Deptford’s heritage, the Shipwrights Palace. Then maybe like me write to Lewisham Council to oppose these plans.  Henry’s daughter Elizabeth I was a regular visitor to Deptford, arriving by river and landing at the watergate stairs. In 1581 she knighted Sir Francis Drake on board his ship and ordered the Golden Hind to be preserved in Deptford as a reminder of the historic achievements of Drake, the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe.  On another occasion in Deptford Sir Walter Raleigh might have thrown down his cloak so Elizabeth could avoid wetting her feet in a puddle on those same stairs, for a while Sir Walter was one of Elizabeth’s favourites. In about 1586 he had a ship built here by Chapman the Master Shipwright, and he named it the Ark Raleigh.

                                 The first Ark Royal

Unfortunately by that time he was less in favour and Elizabeth ‘bought’ the ship from him for the Navy renaming it the Ark Royal. In 1588 it was the flagship of Admiral Howard in the attack on the Armada.

But one thing leads to another as I said, and at the weekend I went to the Dulwich Picture Gallery for the Twombly and Poussin exhibition. Two painters separated by 350 years that both left their homeland aged about 30 and went to work in Rome. They painted similar subjects in drastically different styles, Twombly was a romantic, and Poussin a classicist. I think Twombly is the greater painter, inspiring and intriguing, beside his electrifying canvases Poussin seems too chocolate-boxey.  Twombly was a poetry lover and introduced poetry into his paintings sometimes as the subject, and often scribbling in pencil onto his paintings.

‘Hero and Leander’ ©Cy Twombly

The painting on the cover of the exhibition catalogue and on the exhibition poster is ‘Hero and Leander‘, a painting about love, death, blood and the sea. Hero and Leander was the poem Christopher Marlowe was working on when he died in Deptford in 1593 after a fight at Eleanor Bull’s house on Deptford Strand.

                John Evelyn’s map of Deptford and The Strand.

For a couple of days I was completely obsessed with Twombly and Marlowe, and the many fantastical theories surrounding the death of Christopher Marlowe.

     Christopher Marlowe, 1585 aged 21. Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

Was he a spy for Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster in the 1580s? Was he linked to the out-of-favour Earl of Essex? Did he contact Sir Walter Raleigh and express atheistic views, which was as serious as treason in Elizabethan England. His patron was Walsingham’s cousin, Thomas Walsingham a former courier for the intelligence services, and Marlowe spent his last night alive at Thomas Walsingham’s moated manor house at Scadbury in Chislehurst.  As did the man who would kill him Ingram Frizer and two others, all three working for Thomas Walsingham and possibly working in the Elizabethan spy network. Two of them had been involved in exposing the plot by supporters of Mary Queen of Scots to usurp Elizabeth. One of them, Robert Poley, should have been delivering an urgent dispatch to the Queen at Nonsuch, but instead chose to spend the day with Marlowe in Deptford. It seems a fight broke out over the bill, and Marlowe was stabbed to death, and later buried in St Nicholas‘ churchyard. Frizer was pardoned, Mrs Bull it turns out was distantly related to Lord Burghley, Elizabeth’s chief advisor, and she also had contacts with Walsingham’s spy network. Three years after Marlowe’s death, Elizabeth visited Scadbury and knighted Thomas Walsingham… I don’t suppose we’ll ever know exactly what happened and why, but the rumours indicate that there may be more to his death than meets the eye.

The ruins of Scadbury Manor can still be seen if you’re adventurous enough to search for them at Scadbury Nature Reserve. I did of course, braving brambles and barbed wire, first finding a Tudor walled kitchen garden then following that around to the romantic ruins of the old manor house, still surrounded by a moat.

Back to the beginning of this rambling story, driving along half- listening to “Iris” I heard a remark about breakfast and Queen Elizabeth, but I didn’t quite catch the context so I had to go and buy the book.

There on page 111 is the description of breakfast in a hotel : “had bacon and scallops for breakfast, the favourite morning dish, as I recalled, of good Queen Elizabeth the First, who used to wash it down with a pint of small beer. We had Irish coffee instead.

That is the sort of annoying throw-away remark by an academic that can never be proved to be true, or not. But I like the idea of Queen Elizabeth breakfasting on bacon and scallops at the Royal Dockyard in Deptford.

Most recipes for scallops and bacon would have you wrap the bacon around each scallop and secure with a cocktail stick. That’s a bit too mimsy for me, I’d want a proper dockers’ breakfast, not finger food.

I buy my scallops from F.C. Soper in Nunhead, or Shellseekers in Borough Market.  Ex-navy diver Darren Brown runs Shellseekers, if you visit his stall on a Friday or Saturday you’ll find Darren cooking takeaway scallops with bacon.

Scallops and Bacon

Ingredients (serves 2):

225g – 450g streaky unsmoked bacon rashers, you’ll need 2 or 3 rashers per person, depending on your love of bacon

10 or 12 scallops, removed from their shells. Slice each scallop in half through the side into 2 rounds.  (Don’t buy large bags of scallops from supermarkets, they’ve probably been soaked in phosphates which bleaches them and then soaked in water so they swell unnaturally. I prefer to buy diver-caught scallops, a bit more expensive but better.)

Freshly ground black pepper, and salt

1 medium onion, finely chopped

1 clove of garlic, crushed

Glass of white wine

25g unsalted butter

A few leaves of fresh parsley


Grill the bacon, or fry if you wish, till the rashers are starting to crisp and curl. Then put them onto kitchen paper to drain. While the bacon is cooking lightly grease a heavy frying pan with a little oil and over a medium heat fry the scallops for about 2 minutes each side. Season with salt and pepper. Cook the scallops till they are golden, then remove them to a warm dish. Add the chopped onion and crushed garlic to the pan, increase the heat, and when the onion is translucent pour in the glass of white wine. Stir, and scrape the bottom of the pan to collect the bits of fat and scallop. Keep cooking so the liquid reduces by half, then spoon in the butter and stir a little bit more. Serve the bacon with the scallops and pour over the juices from the pan. Scatter a few parsley leaves across the dish.     Rule Britannia!

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