Saturday, 9 March 2013

A pie from the past

The week just ending has, apparently, been British Pie Week. It’s difficult to know just who declares such things – whereas it’s also been National Butcher’s Week, but that’s rather clearly industry-related.

The only proper-looking website for pie week revealed that it was all the idea of Jus-rol pastry, which is one of the brands owned by General Mills, itself one of the world’s largest food companies, so on that basis, I decided against making much of it.

But then something else happened.

Some time ago, out of curiosity and a certain sentiment, I bought a copy of Recipes of Lakeland, which was complied by readers of Cumbria and published in 1966.

It’s an intriguing record in its own right, illustrated with idealised black and white photographs from the area.

It’s very easy to view Lakeland through the haze of Wordsworthian daffodils and chocolate boxes, as an eternally picturesque part of the country.

But it’s also a hard place – the fells are not the easiest farming country and the eastern fells of the Eden Valley perhaps even less so. For instance, it doesn’t get much bleaker than Shap Fell – yet my parents knew people who farmed even up there.

Browsing that booklet again a few days ago in a mood of nostalgia, I had been looking at the vast array of biscuits and breads and cakes when I spotted something called a Westmorland farmhouse pie, and the germ of an idea took root.

The recipe itself is scant in detail. Diced mutton, beef and bacon are layered in an earthenware pot on top of sliced potatoes and followed by layers of onion and carrot in between. It’s finished with a further layer of potato.

The ratio of potato to meat is approximately two to one, but it's not really the sort of dish where you need to worry about measuring things.

Water is added to cover, the lid is popped on and it goes into a slow oven for two and a quarter hours. Then a pastry top is added and it has another 45 minutes.

A pretty picture and plenty of puddings.

The recipe doesn’t say what sort of pastry.

I don’t remember eating anything like this when we were staying on farms in later years – I have abiding memories of all the family where we stayed, plus us, sitting around the vast, old table in the dining room next to the kitchen; a room with a sort of ancient, dark wood dresser built into one entire wall, full of small, square cupboards.

And I remember having tea with cold meats and Cadbury’s miniature chocolate rolls, and I remember hams.

Nothing like the farmhouse pie features in those memories, but I had a hunch that this was a dish for the end of winter, when supplies were running thin. And a little research supported this – not with any mention of the dish itself, but noting that those meats would have been dried to preserve them through the harsh fell winter.

The right pot for the job.
There were always going to be limits to just how authentique it could be – not least because I wasn’t going to be using leftover mean that had been preserved for the winter.

Question one was the dish: I have an earthenware one – but it’s rather deep to make this for just two people and be able to put a pastry lid on.

The best option seemed to be one of my enamel pie dishes, which would then tightly ‘lidded’ with foil for the first stage of cooking.

And finally – what pastry?

The obvious would be shortcrust, but I did consider trying my hand at puff pastry before settling for a really flaky short made with lard.

It’s a dish that reminds me of Lancashire hot pot, with its layers of meat and vegetables, topped off with potato.

On Broadway Market early this morning, before many stallholders had even got their produce ready, I was delighted to find that Matthew had a little mutton – already diced: we were on.

In the end, with the amounts I had (approximately 400g beef and 200g mutton, plus two rashers of unsmoked back bacon), I plumped for that earthenware, half-glazed pot – a lovely worn, old one, made in France originally and a house-warming present from the days before I was really interested in cooking.

First layer of potato with some of the meats and thyme.
It has, in the years since, been used for more than one Lancashire hot pot, and although it made the pastry lid a tad awkward – that had to be fitted inside the pot – it was the best choice from a practical point of view because of diameter and depth, while it even leant aesthetics to the business, its very sense of age seeming perfect for this culinary dip into the past.

So, the base was lined with a sliced potato, followed by a layer of mixed, diced meats, then onion, carrot and celery (another slight change) and more meats, before the final potato.

Seasoning was salt, plenty of ground black pepper and dried thyme, added as the dish was built up.

Water was added – but not to cover, only up about three quarters of the way; also reminiscent of how I've learnt to cook a hot pot.

The oven was heated to 140˚C (fan) and the lidded pot placed inside.

It got two and a half hours to start before I added a shortcrust top – 150g plain flour mixed with 75g lard, a pinch of salt and cold water to bring it together.

The temperature of the oven was raised to 180˚C (fan) for a final half an hour with the pastry but no lid.

It could have done with more salt – I’d been particularly cautious about that, given the bacon – but let's face it, it's easier to add salt than take away.

Otherwise it was a success, with enough to feed two of us twice – it'll be reheated tomorrow for lunch, with a fresh pastry top made from the remaining dough.

This is the sort of food that wins brownie points just for the glorious smells that gently fill the house as its cooking; the sort of smell that makes a house a home.

And if the combination of meats and vegetables seems a little clichéd, that’s because it works well.

This was hearty food – and is very much a dish that, having been discovered, will be made again.


  1. Amanda,

    Thank you for a lovely post. Very soothing on the eye and the ear. That's a very bumptious earthenware pot you've got there. And I think mutton is fabulous. You've inspired me.


    1. Hi Catherine,

      Thank you for commenting – and I'm delighted that you enjoyed it.