This is the (slightly edited) ‘letter’ I sent to a friend in Australia today. A long-time fan and follower of my Pie Season works, he’s been after something he refers to ‘a recipe’ for some time. Here’s what I sent in its place. It’s not exactly M.F.K. Fisher, but I take inspiration (inelegantly so) from her writing around and beyond the immediate grub.
Howdy. If I’ve seemed in any way reticent in sharing a recipe, it’s probably down to the fact I don’t really ‘do’ them. Personally I follow them about as well as I do maps – around which a kind of navigational dyslexia kicks in; I have no natural sense of direction, and it’s a wonder how I ever managed as a sales rep – some would argue I didn’t. But, hey. Here we go.
Peace Pie? Pie of Peace? Look, what we’re dealing with here is a mindset of letting the main events get on with each other. Minimal interference; very little fuss. Typically I’m a bugger for chucking endless swathes of spices, herbs, frills and gimcracks into the mix. So this is more correctly about harmony, space, I guess. Phrasing, melody. You choose. I think Peace serves us well as a headline thought. And of course we’re dealing with events in the news at the same time. Peaceful for the creatures? With this I struggle (I make a kind of shoulder-shruggy Soprano-meets-Seinfeld gesture there) – With This I Struggle. I’m a big, big Morrissey fan. I know the words to Meat Is Murder, and I sang along most recently, under those red lights in Hull. I’ve been vegetarian in my past and possibly will be again. Then I was in my early twenties – art student. It was quite the thing. And there was a girl. There were DM shoes; black jeans with turn-ups, you know the drill. I did my utmost best with courgettes, with chick peas, with mushroom soup instead of gravy. But ultimately I was unfaithful, and repeatedly, with a battered sausage. Always it was battered sausage. I like to think (though I bat the idea away as all too flabby-convenient) that the local-sourcing; the independent shop; the traceability; the blown-over chalkboards that mention the village – that all these count towards something less bad, somehow, about the meat. Well… really? It’s interesting to me that I’m bothered now more than I have been in a long time, and who knows where that will take me? Meantime, for me, the local butcher’s is a scene of bumbling daftness. In the place of banter are swallowed words, misheard responses, gazes held too long, too wrong. The butcher speaks in rapid-fire, at high treble, and usually over a saw. My hearing’s increasingly shot – I have this mad tinnitus in the left. I can only say ‘sorry?’ so many times before I resort instead to uncomprehending nods and half-laughed ‘oh yeahs’. I come back home to have my running joke with B. about the high-fives, the horseplay headlocks; how they wouldn’t, simply couldn’t, let me leave. This Saturday when I’m in there, our local barber is behind me in the queue. We’re similary awkward, and I’m beginning to suspect it could be me.
Me: You going tomorrow?
Barber: No – I’ll probably listen on the radio.
Me: Oh, is it not at Derby?
Barber: No, it’s at Sheffield.
Top, top banter.
They’re all out of braising steak behind the glass, but he hefts out the back leg of a cow from the cold room. It’s all a bit real. Mind, I worked in a pork butchers – the proper factory end of things – when I was 16, so I’m no stranger to a cold, pink flank, though my duties mainly involved putting jelly into pork pies.
So it’s shin beef we’re using here. 700g. Good for the slow cooking and holds its flavour well, I think. I also get yay-much Local black pudding; enough for about four hockey-pucks. I (like B.) have avoided black pudding up until a year or so ago. We had it cold in salads in France, and got the taste for it. Boudin. Sounds much nicer. I remember years back being at breakfast at some hotel just outside Barnsley. I asked for the Full English without black pudding. The waitress said, we don’t do black pudding. I said, well what could I have it without, then? She didn’t laugh. I still love that exchange. It’s like this other time I was in Amsterdam and I asked for Earl Gray tea and to have that with milk. The waiter made a right face about the request, so I said, listen mate, there’s a [detail removed] with a goat next door, so don’t get all judgey about how I take my tea. Any excuse to wheel that one out.
Normally I would be troubling the village store for a whole harvest festival of veggies ahead of a pie, but for this one I deliberately waft through the first aisle without stopping and head straight for the Haribos. I’m feeling nicely reckless about my poor planning. (Sidebar: there’s a bloke on the tills who actively dislikes me. Imagine! B. says it’s probably not true at all, but she doesn’t see the looks he gives me. Village life, eh?)
Sunday morning I get up at eight, download last night’s Nordic Noir, and fire up the slow-cooker. Argos, ten quid. In goes the beef, cubed and seasoned the previous evening (salt and black pepper only – I am so zen right now). One large red onion, roughly chunked; mushrooms, whole or halved. Nothing’s pre-floured and ‘woken’ in a frying pan. Pale Ale to cover. I use a Sharp’s Atlantic – a good, soft, light ale. I had the Guinness phase, but then you’re into balancing with brown sugar, so I’m like what’s the point? Blue Moon I like to use also. I know you’re not a fan. It’s an important part of my life; means a lot – but I’m passing over it this time ‘cos I just want the big players to shine. More black pepper, a dash of Worcestershire sauce. Lid on, on low, leave for about eight hours.
B.’s doing the tree and has QVC on in the front room, and I’m in the kitchen with Radio 5. This is my favourite pie making moment; when it’s all about to happen. Dark outside. Beer on the go. Alan Green’s commentary…
Black pudding sliced and into a frying pan, no oil. Let that just get a crispness on both sides. Remove and then tip in the blackberries. Hold up.
I don’t really do recipes, as I said. There’s a kind of intuition, but at the same time that’s a roaring joke, as I am descended from Terrible Eaters. You wouldn’t believe the things my dad imagines about certain foods and the menace they present. My mum never liked to cook. There was a Hairy Bikers show on a while ago, all about childhood memories of food; you can imagine, all steaming abundance and down-to-earth-goodness and, oh, the nurturing, kind nourishment. And then I think back to our ever-present undertone of ‘here, I hope it chokes you’, and I have to laugh. No, I have to. Actually, I’m being mean. Food was just not a great part of growing up. It was never much allowed to be. Which of course brings us right back full circle to the battered sausage. I should really mention that my old grandma, Gladys, she used to make fantastic pies. Huge things. I think a lot of this is to do with that.
So, blackberries – look, I knew this meat needed a sweetness. Cranberries? Too reserved for turkeys at this time of year. But something sharp and interesting. I remembered we had some blackberries in the freezer that I’d picked just up the lane here. (Note, we do not actually live in Wind in the Willows, or in a Ladybird book from 1958). And I guess I liked the ‘black’ link – and possibly the brambles – enough to get at least a little Ted Hughes about the whole affair. Rain and muck. Perfect stuff.
Sweat, if anything, down the blackberries, with traces of the black pudding fat; and add a splash more of the ale until the fruit are sliding in a pool of red. Tip the lot into the cooker with the beef.
I do not make my own pastry. A shortcrust slab and a shortcrust roll. A pie tin 10 by 7.5 inches. Blind bake the base and then ladle in the beef, blackberries and the sauce from the cooker; fish out the onions as you go – they are spent. Layer and semi-crumble the black pudding on the top. Pastry lid on and egg-wash liberally. Decorations optional; I like to theme all mine, and use the letters that B.’s mum bought me last year.
I think this is a pie about the flavours having space.
Bake to your oven’s capabilities, and never be shy of a good scorching here and there. Then rest (for the time it takes to photograph and contemplate) and serve with heaps of English mustard.