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Fergus Henderson on the magic of pies

A bit of mystery and a magical marriage of filling and crust make pies a source of joy, writes Fergus Henderson.

Over lunch, a group of us had a moment of publishing genius thinking up the next magazine of the moment: Pie Quarterly. With articles such as "What Does Pie Mean to You?" and "Pie of the Month", it pretty much writes itself. The centrefolds are custard pies, which are really only topless custard tarts. Like many great lunchtime ideas, the richer details had already started to fade by the time coffee and digestifs were served, but being a huge pie enthusiast I can't let the idea disappear without putting some of it down on paper to give you a little taste of its brilliance.

The power of pie! The mystery of what lies beneath the crust! I once sat next to a lady at dinner who, when the pies arrived at the table, revealed that she suffered from pie phobia. Her condition worsened every second that went by before the pie's filling was exposed, and only then could she compose herself.

It's a bit like having a gimp in the larder, not knowing what's going on under that rubber onesie or, in the case of pie, its suet crust. I suffer from no such concerns. Bring out the gimp, I say.

"Pies I've Known and Loved": there have been many. Trotter gear - that magical, alchemical substance made from cooking down trotters with aromatics and Madeira so dear to our hearts in the St John kitchens - comes into its own as the X-factor in game pies, adding more goodness to the pie and enhancing a thing of beauty. Pigeon and trotter pie, rabbit and trotter, grouse and trotter, hare and trotter! A central support of bone marrow, too, works similar magic here. The more prosaic-seeming beef mince pie comes into its own as a wonderful vehicle for mashed potato. And everything is excellent with a suet crust.

Then again, some pies lend themselves to a puff pastry top. Pike and leek pie is perhaps the prime example, the leeks bound with the pike in a silky fish velouté - the very last word in comfort food. And while I have the reassuring world of the white-sauce pie in mind, I have to make mention of the lesser-seen chicken and ox tongue pie - a true joy.

But the winner is the pig's head and potato pie.

I came up with this for one of the World's 50 Best Restaurants lunches at St John. It is a thing of beauty, a delicious pie that perfectly expresses the idea of pie to many a decimal point. The interior is made up of layers of potato and chunks of cooked chopped pig's head, while the exterior is formed by lining a springform cake tin with puff pastry. This is then filled with a layer of head, then a layer of potato, repeated until it's full. One then pops the pastry lid on and bakes it till the potato is cooked (any residual crunch left in the potato being, of course, a disaster). When you're happy that it's done, you let it sit for five minutes, then release it from the tin. The transference of butter in the pastry and the fat from the pig's head transmogrifies the pastry crust into a thing of joy, and you should end up with something that looks like a large, golden ice-hockey puck.

Interestingly, at the 50 Best lunch, this pie confused one great visiting chef, who will remain unnamed to save justified embarrassment. He sliced the top off the pie with some verve, removed it and left it to one side. In one fell swoop, he transformed the glorious pie into a mere pastry bowl full of potato and pig's head. Who would have thought there could be such international discrepancy in the approach to pie?

I feel there is a slight naughtiness to pies. With the raunchy seaside-postcard genre in mind (and lest we forget what pie means in Glasgow), there is, of course, the happy rhyme: "An apple pie without some cheese is like a kiss without a squeeze."

Love pies too? Here are 20 of our favourite pie recipes.

Illustration Lara Porter


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