Pie hard

With British Pie Week just around the corner, we take a look at the history of the pastry-encased (depending on how precious you’re going to be about it) dinnertime staple, and hunt down some of

Pineapple on pizza. Chorizo in paella. The order in which cream and jam appear on a scone. There are lots of culinary debates we can (and regularly do) get ourselves into, but the issue of what constitutes a proper pie might just be one of the most quarrelsome. 

While most of us don’t lose any sleep over (despite having all fallen victim to) casseroles with pastry lids referred to as ‘pies’ on menus the country over, it’s a contentious issue for many. In 2015, a government petition was even started online to urge “the implementation of criminal sanctions upon the owners of food outlets that serve items described as pies without a pastry base.” Sure, you may be thinking that’s a bit extreme – but the 6,000-odd people who signed it don’t. 

Neither are the folk at The British Pie Awards prepared to negotiate on these pastry-based terms. To enter the competition – which takes place during British Pie Week (2-8 March this year), each submission must be “a filling wholly encased in pastry and baked.” 

“It’s important to ensure a fair competition and to celebrate the art and science of piemaking,” awards organiser Matthew O’Callaghan tells us. 

“To us, a casserole with a lid on it just isn’t a pie!”

That’s right: lattice-topped creations can do one. Stews with puff-pastry roofs will get laughed out of there. And don’t even mention potato lids. Pasties, though, are fair game, as “they were the forerunner of pies and fulfil our definition of a filling completely enclosed in pastry and baked,” says Matthew.

The British Pie Awards were founded in 2009 to celebrate this historic culinary staple and promote the art of pie-making, their organiser tells us.  

“The British eat over £1 billion worth of pies a year and we believe they are the main British contribution to world culinary heritage – we do pies like no other country in the world.

“Some pies were in danger of being lost or the recipe changed out of all recognition, like the Melton Mowbray pork pie, for instance. Pie-making is a blend of art, science and craft; the BPA celebrates this – and the piemakers.”

There sure is something very British about pie. Think cold pork pies at a picnic. A beef and ale number down the pub in front of the fire. Apple pie, drowning in custard, after the Sunday roast. Yes, and the teatime squabble over what constitutes an example of one. So very British. 

Despite all that, though, the pie concept doesn’t come from this isle. (It’s not all bad: we can still claim sandwiches, sparkling wine and, oh yeah, only the bloody World Wide Web.) 

It’s the Romans (what surprises!) who are widely credited with developing the pie as we know it today. The concept – a filling encased in dough – can be traced back much further, though, to ancient Egypt. (Mind you, the versions those guys were knocking out were rather distant relatives to the beef and Stilton fella we might tuck into down the pub.)

After some product development by the ancient Greeks, the Romans took up the baton and had the ingenious idea of using pastry to contain meat and all its juices. The thick crust acted purely as a container, though – the original lunchbox, if you will – and wasn’t for eating, it’s thought.

Anyway, we all know how the Romans spread everything as efficiently as office aircon does a common cold, so that’s how they came to us here in the UK. (Pies, that is, not colds.)

By the 1300s, ‘pie’ (or ‘pye’, as it was often spelt) had made it into the Oxford English Dictionary, so it’s safe to assume Brits were eating their fill of the things by this point. The crusts were still substantial, to the end of making it possible to eat the thing just with your hands. No messing.  

Pies were kicking around any feast worth its salt, but they were all of the savoury kind – and that includes fillings of live birds and small boys. No joke. See, having things jump out of pies was a bit of a party trick back in the day. It wasn’t until the 16th century that sweet pies started to proliferate, with the first cherry pie supposedly served to Queen Elizabeth I.     

Half a millennium later, and humans have all but perfected the pie, with traditional fillings ranging from beef and ale (classic) to chicken and mushroom (comfort ahoy) and ham and pea (a dark horse that’s all too often overlooked, in our opinion). But the fillings aren’t the only differentiator between 21st-century pies. As well as the kind you’ll find in restaurants, there are the likes of pork pies (eaten cold and filled with pork stock jelly) and chip shop-style. 

The latter is the speciality of Bristol institution Clark’s Pies. Having started as a table perched outside Mary Clark’s little terraced house in Cardiff, the biz came to Bristol in 1929 and has been stationed at its current North Street premises since ’35. Back in the day, hundreds of workers from the W. D. and H. O. Wills factory across the road (now the office space, café-bar and theatre known as the Tobacco Factory) would pop over for their lunch, forming queues that stretched right down North Street to Raleigh Road. 

Clark’s Pies, which is now run by Mary’s great-granddaughter Dawn Clark and her partner Keith Prested, is known for its thick-shelled bakes, the robust layer of pastry making them great for eating with your hands, on the go – no need for the oft-seen foil tray. The signature offering contains beef, ox kidneys, potatoes, onions and gravy, just as Mary made hers at home, more than a century ago. 

“The Clark’s Pie hasn’t changed much at all since it was first made,” says Keith. “Perhaps we have more meat and less gravy nowadays, only because we have to ensure trading standards are adhered to in respect of meat content. 

“The range has grown slightly over recent years, though –  we now do a steak and ale pie and a chicken balti pie.” 

Making more than a thousand of its signature pies every single day, Clark’s supplies chip shops and takeaways across the city and beyond. More recently, in 2003, Pieminister was born in Stokes Croft. This speciality pie outfit now has a nationally known string of restaurants and its pies are stocked in grocery shops across the country. Behind it are Tristan Hogg and Jon Simon, whose mission was to update the pie and make it more relevant to younger audiences. 

“We’re a nation of pie lovers, but for a while there – back in the ’80s and ’90s – we forgot just how good pies could be,” says Jon. “Made well, they’re the perfect comfort food for British weather, designed to cheer us up and warm us through. 

“We both noticed while travelling in Australia in our early twenties, though, that pies had a really different image over there. Places like Harry’s Café de Wheels in Sydney were pulling in a young, cool crowd. Generally, the quality of ingredients didn’t seem a top priority for shop-bought pies in the UK back then. More often than not, fillings were a gloopy mess of mystery ingredients, topped with a soggy grey pastry lid. 

“We believed that we could change this and revive the great British pie. We wanted to create a fun brand that our generation would love and trust and that we’d enjoy working on.”

And the range continues to evolve even now, 17 years later. As their customers’ tastes have developed, Tristan and Jon have challenged themselves to become more and more experimental. 

“We would have said a few years ago that a great pie is about creating a really fantastic slow-cooked casserole then encasing it in pastry,” Tristan tells us. “That’s still the case for many of our classics, but we’ve experimented in recent years with different cooking methods. 

“For example, our new vegan Evergreen pie is cooked fast to retain all the lovely goodness of the greens in a blitzed-up raw blend of garlic, ginger and soy, while giving the flavour an aromatic punch.  

“And then there’s our Hopper pie, which we made for British Pie Week a few years ago using sustainably-sourced crickets. We knew our customers would try it for novelty’s sake but we actually had a great response to the flavours and ingredients.”

These guys are getting right in on the British Pie Week action again this year, promising all sorts of events and competitions. (Important: you could win a year’s supply of pies. For reals. Keep your eyes peeled for that one.)    

If you’re not craving a pastry encrusted treat right about now, to be frank, we’re not sure quite what’s wrong with you.