Tag Archives: English

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

Method:

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

Method:

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

String

Method:

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.


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Warning: May Contain Nuts…

We’re just back from Polly and Jon’s wedding in Kent. I wasn’t the wedding photographer but Polly is the daughter of very old friends and we’ve known her all her life, and I wanted to take some pictures. Disaster struck, all my cameras suddenly decided enough was enough and ground to a digital death, and my pocket digital had disappeared into the matmos I call home.

So I had to take the Holga to accurately (!) record Clarissa’s arrival at the church.

And her shoes…!

A Holga is a light-leaking plastic camera with a plastic lens that uses 120 film. Some might say it misuses 120 film.

It has a cult following because it can be relied upon to produce pictures that are blurred, out of focus, haphazardly framed and (by light getting into the camera) fogged . Which is exactly why it is so satisfying to use after the relentless perfection of digital with the endless opportunities and compulsion to manipulate, ‘improve’ and ‘correct’ to make reality even more real, but at the same time less true. I agree with Martin Scorcese who reckons digital effects may look ‘real’, but they lack that ‘used’ feel, the fortuitous unplanned reality of life.

Polly’s mum and dad, Barry and Karin, used to live in Brockley, but some years ago they decided they needed a new challenge and took the brave step of selling their huge house and buying the 180 acres of beautiful Kent countryside known as Farnell Farm. From the beginning they planted Kentish cobnuts, Filberts and Gunselberts, about 700 trees altogether on a sloping 4 acre field leading down to their barn.

They thought cobnuts would be in tune with the landscape and a traditional local crop,  something that was very important to how they saw their life on the farm.  On our first visit we were unprepared for the sheer beauty of the landscape; while the dog dashed around in lurcher heaven Barry and Karin showed us around the orchard, Barry worrying about the squirrels eating the nuts, and later Karin bringing us some freshly picked green cobnuts.

The cobnut harvest starts at the end of August after St Philbert’s Day, the first cobnuts are green, and eaten as fresh as possible. The taste was amazing, the green cobnuts were moist, sweet and soft.

Even the wonder-lurcher discovered a passion for green cobnuts. “People become addicted to green cobnuts,” said Barry. “If you taste them green the flavour is unique and subtle, once they’ve been cold-stored or chilled they lose that flavour.” Karin thinks they taste like raw fresh peas. Green cobnuts are only available for a few weeks from about now, then they’ll turn dry and golden and are delicious roasted. The field yields about 2 tons per hectare depending on the squirrels who account for about half the crop. Then there’s the badgers. Farnell Farm has 75 acres of ancient bluebell woods, peppered with badger setts, the badgers climb up the trees after the nuts and flatten them!

Now a few years on, they’ve a small flock of Portland sheep, and they’ve recently planted 5 acres of vines, hoping in 3 or 4 years to be producing their first Farnell Farm wine.

The couple are licensed by DEFRA to sell bluebell seeds, I didn’t know it was illegal to collect the seeds without a licence, but apparently this is a serious business, and Barry and Karin were two of the first people to be granted a licence to gather and sell the seeds.  They’ve added wild garlic and wild broom seeds to their stock and sell everything by mail order through their website.

The whole family, Barry, Karin, Polly, her brother Harry, and now Polly’s husband Jon, all help with the cobnut harvest, picking the nuts by hand then dehusking them and laying them out on tables turning them once a day.  “Our cobnuts aren’t cheap,” said Karin, “but they are as near perfect as we can get them, we don’t use any sprays or chemicals and rely on birds to keep insects at bay. We haven’t gone for organic registration because of the cost, but our cobnuts are as organic as anyone’s.”

The hazel tree dates from the end of the last Ice Age, cultivated hazels known as Filberts have been grown since the 16th Century, named after St Philbert’s Day which falls just as the nuts are ready to eat. The Kentish cobnut is also known as the Lambert Filbert which was developed in the 1800s. Other traditional varieties are the Gunselbert and the Frizzled Filbert.

Before the last War there were 7,000 acres planted with cobnuts, now there might be just 250. People have lost the taste for cobnuts as small greengrocers have disappeared and supermarkets refuse to stock fresh cobnuts. Some Turkish shops stock green cobnuts from abroad, I’ve seen them in the Lewisham Food Centre for instance.

The Kentish Cobnut Association, led by Alexander Hunt are working to preserve this tradition.  Alex was at the wedding, we’d met before at the Canterbury Food Fair  and at Produced in Kent events. I told him about the blog and we self-consciously exchanged cards.

Ah yes ,the wedding, the Holga was doing its best, every so often I  changed the film and replaced the batteries back into their clips, they kept falling out and rattling around inside the camera so the flash wouldn’t work. The official photographers moved smoothly on, their laptops glowing confidently; as dusk arrived they suggested taking some pictures of the bride and groom with the bridesmaids and ushers in a field the other side of the woods. I thought I might get something memorable, but when I reached the field after negotiating the odd electric fence it was quite dark and I had to rely on the puny built-in flash. The photographers set up umbrellas and flashguns and fiddled with radio transmitters while I happily shot away. Later back in London I took the films to West End Cameras for developing, explaining the shots were taken in near darkness from about 20 feet away and I didn’t think they’d come out…? They specialise in cameras like Holgas and their cousins Lomo and Diana and are really enthusiastic about the fun of film photography. When I got the prints back I was really pleased, this is what is so exciting about Holga photography, the unexpected results the double exposures and the over-lapping frames. The snaps remind me of one of the happiest days,  the fun of photography and the companionship of old friends.

Here’s a recipe for cobnuts, with marrow and plums from the Kentish Cobnut Association. I bought my plums in Lewisham Market, walking around the back of the fruit stalls scrutinising the labels on the crates of fruit till I found some English plums from a farm near Sittingbourne in Kent.

Stuffed Marrow with Plums and Kentish Cobnuts

 

Ingredients (serves 4):

1 large marrow

2 onions, sliced

2 – 4 cloves of garlic

350g plums

450g cobnuts (that’s the weight in their husks)

175g mushrooms, sliced chunkily

4 tomatoes, sliced

110g butter

30g grated fresh ginger

Some mixed herbs, fresh or dried

Salt and pepper

Method:

Clean the marrow and slice it in half lengthways. Scoop ,out the seeds leaving a hollow in each half of marrow and then put them into a suitable ovenproof dish.

Halve the plums and remove the stones. De-husk the cobnuts and chop them roughly, not too small. Take half the butter an in a pan gently fry the onions. Then combine all the ingredients, adding the garlic to your own taste, an scattering with a few mixed herbs, but remember not to overpower the subtle flavour of the cobnuts. Divide this mixture in half and put equal amounts into each half of marrow. Dot with the remaining butter, cover the dish loosely with tinfoil and bake in your oven preheated to 180C for 90 minutes.


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