I was watching Swinton Lions RLFC when it happened. You will think I’m making that peak-northern detail up, but no, we were at a rugby league game when Mrs N turned to me, holding a potato ‘n’ meat pie, and said, grimly, ‘Pff! Potato pie, more like. Where’s the meat?’
Reader, in 28 years together, never have I felt more distant from her. I try to be understanding. She is posher than me (not hard) and southern (okay, East Midlands). She grew up around Melton Mowbray pork pies and what, to northerners, seem like impossibly decadent puff-pastry Pukkas. We are from different worlds. Even so, this betrayed a startling lack of interest in regional pie culture.
I’m not saying I’m the better person (not out loud, anyway). But where I see virtue in all pies – from mechanically recovered meat jobs (cheap, early nose-to-tail!) to luxurious rare-breed stunners – Mrs N had no idea Manchester’s potato ‘n’ meat pies should taste primarily of peppery potato. The meat is almost incidental. As you know, right?
Have I ever truly disliked a pie? As British Pie Week approaches (2-8 March), I can recall struggling with gristly minced-beef versions dished up in 1980s primary schools, and Yorkshire’s peculiar habit of serving pork pies warm always feels wrong. In a pork pie, I demand set jelly and cold, waxy pastry abutting reassuringly dense meat.
But, otherwise, I am eternally ‘pie-curious’. And why not? In a harsh world, pies are a constant yet always evolving source of comfort. Even as meat becomes marginal, the pie will live on in ambrosial cheese & onion or the meat-free wonders increasingly created by our finest ‘pie-oneers’: think the turnip, beetroot, spinach, kale & caramelised onion pie offered at the incredible Parkers Arms near Clitheroe.
Whatever the future holds, it will be encased in pastry. Growing up on the Salford-Bolton border, I was in awe of my thoroughbred Lancastrian schoolmates who would head to the chippy each dinnertime for a pie barm (yes, a pie in a buttered barmcake). Every social event included a pie and pea supper, and at home, no family party was complete without multiple huge traybake pies with red cabbage. Does any food better convey a sense of warmth and generous hospitality?
Pubs would abuse that notion by passing off individual pots of puff-pastry-topped stew as ‘homely’. This corner-cutting left a bad taste, and it still does. Proper full-pastry pies need turning regularly to stop their bottoms going soggy and, disgracefully, few pubs can be bothered. Happily, I was there in the 1990s when chefs like Paul Heathcote rediscovered the joys of painstakingly prepared pies.
Although that didn’t stop me enjoying sloppy, vivid-orange balti pies at Maine Road, too. In those days, that was the best entertainment Manchester City could offer. In the following decades, for good and ill, pies went upmarket. By 2018, Greggs was selling only two types of pie regionally, while Pieminister was rolling out compact pie ovens to bars that lacked proper kitchens, saving the steak & ale pie for a new generation. I thank them – we all should.
Because for all the arguing we may do about whether or not the ‘open pie’ is an oxymoron (that, my friend, is a quiche) or the comparative merits of various meat and poultry fillings, our collective love of pies runs deep. Pies may seem quintessentially northern, but, in fact, research suggests the Midlands may eat more, and our greatest pastry artist, Calum Franklin, hails from South London. See? I’m not alone. The pie remains a genuine national obsession.
Read more articles by Tony Naylor
The unsavoury reality of breakfast in bed
20 food trends for 2020
Christmas food shouldn’t be an endurance test
Salted caramel has gone too far
How to use your phone at the table responsibly
The 10 worst things that can happen to a cuppa
What’s your favourite pie? Leave a comment below…
Tony Naylor writes for Restaurant magazine and The Guardian.