“It’s a symphony of crust,
Taties, gravy and meat
A Denby Dale pie makes your life complete!”
From Denby Dale Piem by Yorkshire poet Ian McMillan
I’m a savoury pie fan, always have been. It started with getting excited to the point of almost drooling when my mum bought a rich steak and kidney pie in an enamel dish covered with a thick puff pastry blanket from the local butcher. In those days the kidney bits were always carefully picked out lest they contaminate the taste. Then it progressed to eschewing school dinners in favour of a freshly made, warm Scotch pie from the local bakers. It was cheaper than school dinners as well, so I was able to keep some of my ‘dinner money’ aside in order to buy a book every now and again. I graduated from pie appreciation school in early adulthood by regularly indulging in the obligatory rites of passage act of queueing for post-pub, deep-fried pies from Zavaroni’s chippy where, incidentally, the pizzas were also deep-fried. Before you dismiss the idea of deep-fried pies, they are a thing of unique deliciousness… if you happen to be three sheets to the wind.
I’ve never lost an appreciation for something chunky and tasty enclosed in melt-in-the-mouth pastry and like to feed my need for a pie hit whenever we travel somewhere new… with mixed results.
Britain – pie capital of Europe
Although it’s believed the first pies originated in Italy, proper pies (i.e. ones made from butter/lard and flour) come from Northern Europe. Where else other than Britain can offer such a range of perky pastry products to match the likes of pork pies, steak and kidney, chicken and mushroom, cheese and onion, Cornish pasties, bridies, Scotch pies, venison, meat and potato? The list goes on. Every time we’re in Britain I go a bit pie mad. On one trip around the Scottish Highlands I ended up with about four different pies just from our first pit stop – it’s pie and pastry heaven.
Spain – can’t do pies
On the whole I love Spanish cuisine, but the Spanish just don’t do pies very well. Check out the empanada section of any supermarket and what you get is a selection of anorexic slices with meagre fillings which aren’t usually particularly tasty. For years I desperately wanted to like empanadas de atún, but was disappointed every time I gave them ‘one more try’. The one instance I had an empanada which perked up my taste-buds and had me thinking I might have to change my stance on Spanish pies was from a food truck at a music festival. It turned out it was an Argentinian empanada.
Portugal – good at pies
Considering they’re neighbours and there are some gastronomic similarities, when it comes to pies Portugal’s are leagues apart from Spain’s. Portuguese pies are tasty, having a lot more in common with British pies than those of the country it shares the Iberian peninsula with. The pastry is chunky and the casing deep, ideal for a decent filling. You can get a chicken, pork, spinach, or veal pie hit just about anywhere. The Portuguese also make decent sausage rolls; none of that hot dog wrapped in pastry nonsense you find in some places.
Greece – pies full of flaky flavour
The pie we make at home the most is a Greek one – spanakopita; feta cheese, spinach and spring onion in filo pastry. It’s a messy marvel as it’s impossible to eat filo pies without leaving a ring of flaky filo pieces around you. Generally speaking, Greek pies are perfect for picking at as part of a meze selection, combined with the likes of tzatziki and taramasalata. With fillings that are often meat-free, Greek pies are invariably vegetarian friendly.
Germany – the jury is still out
I think of German cuisine as having more in common with old-school British food than any other country. Many dishes we’ve eaten in Germany look as though they could grace the pages of a Mrs Beeton cookbook – pears with meat are commonplace. And yet, despite having visited the country various times, I can’t once remember eating anything remotely pie-like. I’ve had herby sausages, gamey stews, and monster dumplings, but never a savoury pie. Given the similarities in much of the food I must be at fault for the pie omission. Therefore judgement is reserved.
France – quelle suprise
It’s no surprise that the French are as good at making pies as they are at just about anything else connected with gastronomy. What was a surprise was that one savoury pie sensation I tried in Arles as part of a formule (good value lunch menu) tasted exactly like a British pork pie.
Italy – bready pies
Ah, the gastronomically talented Italians – the nation responsible for Scotland’s deep-fried anything addiction (it was the Italians who introduced fish and chips to Scotland). I’ve seen images of Easter pies in Italy which look just the job – deep pastry shells packed with ricotta cheese, hard-boiled eggs, and chard. Admittedly that’s not a pie filling which is going to excite everyone but it looks good to me. However, I haven’t had first hand experience of it yet. Most Italian ‘pies’ seem to involve filled breads so not proper pies as such. Calzone is a classic example, often looking like an oversized Cornish pasty. In the end it’s still just a pizza.
Ultimately, there are some countries which come up with the crusty goods, and others which just aren’t great at making pies. My quest continues.